Stage Struck Review

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Educational Effort in “Bye Bye, Birdie” at Fremont Centre Theatre

The adult/teen cast of Bye Bye, Birdie sing in celebration of Ed Sullivan: Front - l. to r.- Mirai Booth-Ong, Chloe Lesieur, Tony Prichard, Clara Daly; Rear - Jasmine Einbinder (l.), Meera Sinroja, Stephanie Harvey, Stacy Toyon, Elliott Scott, and Shaina Hammer

The adult/teen cast of Bye Bye, Birdie sing in celebration of Ed Sullivan: Front – l. to r.- Mirai Booth-Ong, Chloe Lesieur, Tony Prichard, Clara Daly; Rear – Jasmine Einbinder (l.), Meera Sinroja, Stephanie Harvey, Stacy Toyon, Elliott Scott, and Shaina Hammer

There are any number of organizations in and around the Los Angeles area which aim to train young people in various aspects of theatrical performance. One of these, which has recently taken up residence at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, is Young Stars Theater, an organization which doesn’t charge for their training sessions, and offers up chances for the more dedicated performers to get into the larger aspects of production by doing all the behind-the-scenes work on shows of their own. It’s an ambitious mission.

The current production of “Bye Bye, Birdie” emphasizes both some of the plusses and some of the traps of this enterprise. One of the down-sides may be overextension, in that they have created two separate companies to perform the show. One, the “Roll Cast” is entirely made up of children and youth. The other, the “Rock Cast” to which critics were invited, claims to be a more traditional combination of adults and teens. The problem stems from having to free up some of the best teenaged performers to play the adults in the all-youth cast. This leaves some supporting roles in the adult-and-teen cast to be played by not-quite-teens, and that can get a bit uncomfortable. More simply, it also dilutes the number of quality performers available in both settings.

The story hasn’t changed, and is set in the traditional 1950s. Teen rock star Conrad Birdie has been drafted (as Elvis was). Albert and Rose, Conrad’s manager and songwriter and his secretary/girlfriend Rose, cook up a plan to give him a sendoff which will allow Albert to move on to a more stable job: a young female fan will be chosen at random to be serenaded with a new farewell song and a goodbye kiss from Conrad himself. And thus, Kim MacAfee’s family in Sweet Apple, Ohio, is descended upon by Conrad, Albert and Rose, surrounded by Birdie fans, and told they will all be on the Ed Sullivan Show. What could go wrong?

Individual performers in the YST production stand out quickly as the show begins. Tara Cox gives Rose the right combination of enthusiasm and frustration, and sings and dances well. As Albert’s guilt-slinging, clingy mother, Stacy Toyon has a ball, and plays the comedy to the hilt. Kurt Loehler’s Albert seems powered by a comic fatalism, which works well enough.

As Conrad Birdie, Matthew Golden grows into the part, ending up with an excellent “One Last Kiss” which sold that entire scene. Meera Sinroja, as the head of the local Conrad Birdie Fan Club sings well and turns what could have been a small part into a focal one.

Tony Prichard has a lot of fun with Kim’s fusty father, while Chloe Lesieur, as Kim’s little brother Randolph, sings very well, performs with real zeal, and pretty much steals the show. As Kim, Clara Daly proves earnest, but still needs to work on volume when she sings. Not that any of the child performers should emulate the vocal cord-damaging belting of an Andrea McArdle, but projection is still important in several cases. Mirai Booth-Ong gives Kim’s mom the appropriate mix of love and frustration.

Many of the other performers just seem to be finding their footing on stage, including Liam Walker as Kim’s boyfriend Hugh. He rarely opens his eyes very much, and doesn’t look at the people he’s supposed to be talking to. Still, in his one moment of significant drama, he steps up well. His fellow young men are indeed very young for some of the girls they’re supposed to be interested, but do what they can. The entire ensemble works well together. Indeed, some of the best moments are ones where everyone is singing, including the signature “Telephone Hour”.

Jack J. Bennett and Gloria Bennett, the husband-and-wife team who operate Young Stars Theater, do just about everything to make this production happen other than performing. Gloria does costumes, lights, sound, stage managing, and musical direction. Jack does set design and construction, and directs. This is economically sound, but perhaps a few more “techies” would be of use.

Though the layout of the piece uses the depth of the FCT stage better than many have, the direction doesn’t take into account the patchy lighting, and people singing major songs wander into the shadows. The set, always a problem in a piece this episodic, creates long pauses between scenes as walls must be moved around furniture. The pre-recorded music which takes the place of an orchestra nobody could fit into that space is electronic and tinny. Even a real piano, recorded, would have given a feel of greater depth.

Still, it’s always fun to see kids really getting into acting. “Bye Bye, Birdie” is light and a bit goofy, and totally appropriate for these young performers to engage in. Their next production is Disney’s “Aladdin, Jr.”, which will likely highlight the best of what they do, and – being a show which isn’t double-cast – allow their best to shine all at once.

What: “Bye Bye, Birdie” When: through October 23, 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; check the website for which cast is performing when Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont St. in South Pasadena How Much: $30 Info: (626) 269-3609 or http://www.YoungStarsTheatre.org

“I Love You, You’re Perfect…”: Slightly Uneven Romantic Silliness in South Pasadena

Gloria Bennett, Troy Guthrie, Mirai Booth-Ong, Jack J. Bennett in "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" in South Pasadena [photo: Cody Sullivan]

Gloria Bennett, Troy Guthrie, Mirai Booth-Ong, Jack J. Bennett in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” in South Pasadena [photo: Cody Sullivan]

The Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena has a new resident company: Young Stars Theatre. In general, their productions feature “junior” versions of plays intended for performance by – as the name suggests – young people. However, for this month when Valentine’s Day is central in people’s thoughts, they’ve opted for much more adult fare, as founders Jack J. Bennett and Gloria Bennett bring their traveling version of the episodic musical “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” to the South Pasadena.

The musical, which won kudos in New York in the late 1990s, celebrates many facets of romance, from dating to marriage, to children and what that can do to marriages and friendships, to the issues of aging and death which are a part of any long-term relationship. The Bennetts are joined by Troy Guthrie, who has worked with them on this show before, and Mirai Booth-Ong to create a series of interrelated and intersecting couples and singles who sing their way through the dramas of their lives.

Classical pianist Yukiko Elegino provides the impressive accompaniment, two small rolling tables, two racks of costumes and a certain amount of suspension of disbelief propels the audience through the disparate, brief story lines. It’s almost overly spare, but the material is strong enough to handle the sparseness.

Jack J. Bennett also directs the show, while Gloria Bennett and Elegino share musical direction credit. The direction proves fast-paced and fun, insightful, often charming, sometimes very funny and occasionally very recognizable. The performances are strong, for the most part, though Booth-Ong’s singing voice lacks both the power and timbre of those around her. Each has moments of impressive performance. Each has moments of less than optimal expression, but by and large the show is definitely worth a look, particularly if you are seeing it for the first time.

One word of warning, though. This may be being produced by a company focused on children’s theater, but this is not for young kids. From “I Will Be Loved Tonight,” in which a young woman awaits a young man she has invited to bring condoms with him to dinner, to the “Marriage Tango” – a very funny piece in which a couple with young children try desperately to find time for intimacy, intimacy in its most specific forms becomes major player throughout. Though not coarse, the discussions might raise a lot of awkward questions from the young.

What: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” When: Through February 28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday, February 14, 2 p.m. for all other Sunday performances Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $30 general, $25 seniors, Valentine’s Day Special: $55 per couple, $45 per senior couple – includes complimentary glasses of wine Info: http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

“The Elliots” in South Pasadena: Jane Austin in Adaptation

Kelly Lohman and Travis Goodman play the star-crossed lovers in "The Elliots", an adaptation of Jane Austin's work [photo: Kate Felton]

Kelly Lohman and Travis Goodman play the star-crossed lovers in “The Elliots”, an adaptation of Jane Austin’s work [photo: Kate Felton]

I can’t help but find it fascinating that in this age of casual manners and oversexed advertising the works of Jane Austin have received such an enthusiastic resurgence. Her mannered romances are, to coin a cliche, an entryway into a simpler time. Yet this simple time could be brutal to women, as estates were entailed to often distant male heirs, and women were stuck in between dreams of romance and the likelihood of being married off for prestige, a price, or family honor. That, for all the romance in her work, was Austin’s world.

Now a new Austin adaptation has arrived at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, courtesy of Little Candle Productions. “The Elliots” is A.J. Darby’s rather truncated adaptation of Austin’s “Persuasion,” centering on the fortunes of one extended family and the heartbreaks they and their friends endure.

As tends to be true of Austin if you just deal with the dialogue, it proves rather talky and in desperate need of movement as a balance. On a stage as small as the one at FCT, this proves difficult, and director Karissa McKinney’s tendency to have everyone sit down a lot of the time just increases this sense of the static. The actors seem to feel that over-intimacy, to the point that some speak very softly. Still, there are some solid individual performances which pull the thing up by its bootstraps.

The tale centers on the family of Sir Walter Elliot, a nobleman of myopic stuffiness whose late wife has left him with three daughters. His eldest, Elizabeth, revels in her status and waits to marry the distant cousin who will inherit the family estate. The youngest, Mary, self-centered and hypochondriacal, is married to local nobleman Charles Musgrove. In-between the two is Anne, who was engaged to a young naval Captain Wentworth, a man of little name and less fortune, until her family convinced her that honor demanded she cut him loose.

Now Napoleonic Wars are over, and Wentworth has returned with fortunes, still bitter but now wealthy and honored, to the part of England the Elliots and Musgroves occupy. Anne is thrown, Charles’ two sisters are charmed, and as Sir Walter’s fortunes wane, romance, comeuppance and redemption are in the air.

Kelly Lohman creates the typical Austin heroine as the gentle, understated Anne. Kalen Harriman has a wonderful time as the discontented Mary. Steve Peterson trips over some of his lines, but certainly looks the part of the pompous Sir Walter, while Emily Greco often seems to control the stage as the snooty Elizabeth.

Nicklaus Von Nolde becomes increasingly likable as the henpecked Charles, while Paula Deming and particularly Madison Kirkpatrick shimmer with youthful energy as his younger sisters. Ryan Young makes great work of the hyper-pious vicar marrying one of the sisters, while Jeffrey Nichols, for all his Austonian good looks, seems to whisper the part of the other sister’s eventual suitor, making him a somewhat questionable romantic figure. As the central male heartthrob, the jilted Captain Wentworth, Travis Goodman begins a bit stiffly, but warms as he goes along, though he still needs less pause in his line delivery.

Adaptor Darby has changed the name of the tale for a reason: she has trimmed and condensed the number of characters to fit the time frame of a live performance. Still, in this trimming, there are essential persons one never meets, and those folks who do populate the stage spend a lot of time in exposition. Between this and the general lack of physical business, the thing feels a bit more stagey than is good for it. On the other hand, the thing looks right, with period furniture and Allison Gorjian’s period costumes (some in need of a press).

Interestingly, Little Candle Productions has taken up residency at the FCT, one assumes replacing of Ray Bradbury’s Pandemonium Productions, which passed away along with the author and his patronage. Their last venture, “Cold Tangerines: The Play” proved a great and well-deserved hit. One assumes there are more on the way. “The Elliots,” by comparison proves more of an interesting exercise – not awful, but not as realized as it could be.

What: “The Elliots” When: Through June 7, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors and students Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

A Small Joy: Little Candle Productions world premiere of “Cold Tangerines” at Fremont CT

Lynn Downey Braswell as Shauna, surrounded by one version of her alter-egos (Betsy Roth, Kira Shea and Susannah Hicks) in the double-cast production of "Cold Tangerines: The Play" [photo: Karissa McKinney]

Lynn Downey Braswell as Shauna, surrounded by one version of her alter-egos (Betsy Roth, Kira Shea and Susannah Hicks) in the double-cast production of “Cold Tangerines: The Play” [photo: Karissa McKinney]

NOTICE: The run of this play has now been extended, by popular demand, to July 13

Author Shauna Niequist has developed a reputation for writing about the ordinary stuff of life. She does so from a religious perspective, but if “Cold Tangerines: The Play,” an adaptation of Niequist’s book by Lynn Downey Braswell, is any indication, the human commonalities are central, with faith more of an undercurrent. And because of that, this play has a universality made truly entertaining by the way in which it is staged.

Now at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, Little Candle Productions’ world premiere of this adaptation proves funny, charming, touching and heartwarming in a comparatively un-saccharine way. For this one can thank the adaptor, a strong cast, and Karissa McKinney’s tight and engaging direction.

The central character and narrator is Shauna, played here by Braswell. Essentially, this becomes the story of her journey into actual adulthood, framed by the three continual voices in her head: the frustrated perfectionist (Kira Shea, alternating with Aliza Pearl), the anxious wife and potential mother (Emily Greco, alternating with Betsy Roth) and the harsh evaluator of self-image (Abby Lynn, alternating with Susannah Hicks). As Shauna speaks, her “voices” act out the situations or provide Greek chorus. It works on a number of levels.

First, Braswell’s narration creates quick connection, as does her delivery. The added voices offer physical comedy, punctuation and an evocative illustration for the issues discussed. The words have a genuine feel, and the adaptation moves smoothly from episode to episode without overplaying any one theme or leaving one wishing for too much more.

Kira Shea must be the chameleon, and does so without missing a beat, shifting from the voice in Shauna’s head to the various males with whom the central storyteller interacts. Emily Greco’s impressive gifts of comic timing and facial expression lead both to the greatest empathy in the piece and some of its most laugh-out-loud moments. The contrast between Abby Lynn’s portrait of a calm exterior and inner wranglings also adds connection to the narrator and to the audience.

The set is basic, and Carol Doehring’s lighting design moves the audience focus from voice to voice in a deceptively effortless way. Andrew Villaverde’s use of sound enhances the storytelling. There is a great sense of ensemble in the piece, and of a singular vision reached by many people at once.

This is not an earthshaking play, any more than Niequiest’s book is an earth shattering book, but it has a gentle, recognizable something to say about the human spirit. Intimate in concept and theme, it works well in the FTC’s small, close-in space. “Cold Tangerines: The Play” can be summed up as the “warm fuzzy” of plays. And sometimes, that can be just what the doctor ordered.

What: “Cold Tangerines: The Play” When: Through June 29, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 students and seniors Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

Of Life, Loss, and Humor: The SeaGlass Theatre’s “Wake” in South Pasadena

Wake_Press_1_Web

The itinerant SeaGlass Theater has landed in South Pasadena with a light, yet touching west coast premiere. “Wake” by Carey Crim finds a gentle, often humorous way to examine issues of loss and isolation, and proves engaging in the process. If, on occasion, it steps a bit close to a Family Channel script, engaging actors and the balance of drama and humor keep it from falling too far in that direction.

Now at the Fremont Centre Theatre, “Wake” (double entendre thoroughly intended) is set in a family-run mortuary and funeral home. The family lives in the building, and the action moves back and forth between their apartment and the main viewing room of the funeral parlor itself, where the central figure often provides finishing touches to the “realistic” make-up the dead wear in their coffins.

The central figure, Molly, is a single mom whose husband died tragically three years before. Now agoraphobic, she lives with her quirky mother Ivy and her precocious young daughter Sam, whom she home schools as a manifestation of her fear. Both family members encourage her to venture outside, even using a long-planned trip to Moscow as incentive. Will it work? Perhaps, but there are demons she must exorcise first.

Alison Blanchard makes Molly quirky but warm, and her struggle between an unresolved past and a potentially open future happens without histrionics – making them very real, and in some cases intuitively more intense. Allie Costa seems a natural as the tween-ish Sam, balancing her own frustrations with her family’s situation with a bubbly, generally hopeful view of the life she wants to drag her mother into.

Then there are the two men off of whom Molly bounces her situation. Michael Connors creates a very genuine, gentle man as Joe, who meets Molly at his own father’s funeral and becomes a window for her to the world she is desperate to rejoin. Larry McCormack brings a formality to Peter, Molly’s dead husband, whose often amusing conversations with Molly illuminate her inability to move on.

Most memorable has to be Nancy B. Berggren’s Ivy, the self-aware, loving grandmother who embodies a fascinating combination of hope and realism. She appears central to the crisp pacing, and lights up any scene she’s in. Yet she does not play the star. These actors work together in an ensemble format which truly is the reason the play works as well as it does. It feels like watching a mildly dysfunctional but loving family, and that sense of comfort allows the messages of the play to travel.

Director Matt Kirkwood utilizes the tiny FTC stage to full effect, thanks in part to set designers Aaron and Monika Henderson, who have designed a set at once realistic and compressed. It works.

“Wake” is about death and life, hope and grief, facing the issues of aging and the potentials of youth, and the necessity of looking one’s own truth in the face. The messages aren’t new, yet t it isn’t corny (though it might have been) in part because the production by SeaGlass Theatre keeps it all so genuine. That’s tougher than one might imagine, and makes this show worth a look.

What: “Wake” When: Through May 25, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: The SeaGlass Theatre at Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors and students Info: (626) 441-5977 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

A Meeting of Creative Minds: “A Perfect Likeness” imagines a literary conversation

Lewis Carroll shows Charles Dickens his camera in "A Perfect Likeness" [photo: Will Hastings]

Lewis Carroll shows Charles Dickens his camera in “A Perfect Likeness” [photo: Will Hastings]

Hypothetical meetings of the famous or legendary of history have been a standard staple of playwrights and novelists for many, many years. Take, as example, “The Meeting,” which put Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X together. It can be a tantalizing question to consider: What would these people who never actually met say to each other? How would they handle their differences?

Now a new entry in that field has arrived in South Pasadena. “A Perfect Likeness” by Daniel Rover Singer offers some conjecture on what might happen if Charles Dodson (known to the world as Lewis Carroll) and Charles Dickens – two men of the same literary age but spectacularly different dispositions – ended up in the same room. The resulting piece could have been hokey in the extreme, but thanks to researched the contrivance it uses to bring them together proves quite convincing. A strong cast also helps.

Daniel J. Roberts is Dodson, the well bred, buttoned up Oxford don – a brilliant mathematician with a flair as an amateur photographer who invites Dickens (as Dodson actually did other literary giants) to sit for his camera. Bruce Ladd is the earthy, worldly, pulled up by his own bootstraps Dickens. They have little in common, it would seem, except they are both swept up in the power of words and a fascination with the changes of their age.

Roberts gives Dodson just enough hesitant decorum to match his surroundings. Still, he is able to also deliver a sense of the excitement held in check in a man doomed by his particular profession to, among other things, celibacy. Ladd gives Dickens that expansive quality for which he was known, yet makes him as observant and insightful as someone must be to write novelized exposes of the evils of his time.

A moment of literal mesmerism, with Daniel J. Roberts and Bruce Ladd [photo: Will Hastings]

A moment of literal mesmerism, with Daniel J. Roberts and Bruce Ladd [photo: Will Hastings]

All the basic elements are there: Dodson’s passion for the innocence of children, Dickens’ fascination with hypnotism and his inability to stay still. Although the process has been edited some for time constraints, it even gives a partial feel for what it would be like in that day and age to sit for a photo.
The set, also designed and built by playwright and director Singer, is a wonder in itself: the perfect Victorian don’s room, trinkets and all.

In the end, one appreciates the art and the accuracy. Dodson’s child photography is approached not as leering pedophilia but (especially since parents were always present) a genuine fascination with childhood as an experience – which seems to be borne out by modern scholars. Dickens’ grim starting place sometimes rumbles under a moment of flippancy, and his passion for the good life echoes his own and others’ statements about his later years.

In short, “A Perfect Likeness” proves charming, if not wildly deep, accurate in the important ways, and quite a satisfying evening. Stay after on some nights for readings by “the authors” from “their” works.

What: “A Perfect Likeness” When: Through December 22, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: on Thursdays $20, seniors and students $15; Fridays through Sundays $25, seniors and students $20 Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

“Auto Parts”: Drama Has Some Assembly Required

John J. Malone and Jack David Frank as a father and son with a disturbing discovery in "Auto Parts"

John J. Malone and Jack David Frank as a father and son with a disturbing discovery in “Auto Parts”

In watching “Auto Parts,” Steve Stajich’s fascinating project at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, one of those very fascinations comes from realizing how different a story can be, depending on the order in which it is told. In this case, a dramatic tale comes in four parts. The audience chooses, before the show begins, the order in which the parts will play. And the order makes all the difference to the assumptions an audience makes as the play unfolds.

Essentially, this is the story four duos – four sets of two people in and around an imaginary car. How they interrelate, even the importance of the car, can vary depending on the order in which the parts are assembled. The parts are also interesting mini-portraits of human interaction, regardless of the order.

In one segment, John J. Malone and Jack David Frank are a father and son debating their own ethics when they come across something they should probably report to the police. But do they want that kind of attention? In another, Frank Noon plays a wistful man who just may have fallen for Angela Stern, as the hooker he has a regular tryst with. A third has Deanna Watkins is a tough detective joined on a stakeout by a partner, Ben Sharples, who is failing at balancing his life and career. Frank Noon appears again in the fourth possible segment, as a man desperate to leave a wife, Kate Kelly, equally desperate to keep him home.

All the performers create richly memorable characters which will cling to you even once the show ends. Also, to some extent anyway, each vignette can stand on its own. Yet, put together in any particular order, the 70 minute show (which plays without intermission) makes something unique and even stronger. Different shoes will drop depending on what happens after what.

Interestingly, the entire idea came to Stajich, who also directs, when a prop “car” made up of a sawhorse and a steering wheel was returned to him much enhanced, after being lent to a Malibu theater. He began thinking what kind of story he could tell which would be held together by this vague impression of vehicle. It works. With this one prop to tie the tales together, we get to focus on the small conversations of life which can make something much bigger than we know.

To say much more is to let so many potential cats out of the bag. In sum, four conversations in and around a car create a drama which proves both intriguing and compelling. And you should go see this unfold. Perhaps you should go more than once, to see how the changes in order changes your experience. One note of caution: the tale is adult enough to make bringing children unwise.

On the other hand, adults should take advantage of something so comparatively unique, when it comes as well formed as “Auto Parts.”

What: “Auto Parts” When: Through September 20th, 8 p.m. Fridays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $15 Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.FremontCentreTheatre.com

A Collection of Mysteries: “The Innocence of Father Brown” revives Chesterton detective

 Blake Walker (as Father Brown) and Brandon Parrish in "The Innocence of Father Brown" at Fremont Centre Theatre [photo: Ellie Roth]

Blake Walker (as Father Brown) and Brandon Parrish in “The Innocence of Father Brown” at Fremont Centre Theatre [photo: Ellie Roth]

Among the treasure-trove of classic British detectives, G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is very distinct. Short, squat, disheveled and intuitive, this Catholic priest figures out crimes more through a deep understanding of human nature and sin than out of any deductive or criminological expertise.

Now, at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, Chesterton’s first collection of Father Brown short stories, “The Innocence of Father Brown,” has been adapted for the stage by Patrick Rieger. The results, though well performed, are somewhat hit and miss.

First, Father Brown is portrayed in the stories as squat, rumpled, and rather nondescript. The FCT Father Brown, Blake Walker, is not squat, and his clothes are quite crisply British, right down to the bowler hat. Instead he is young and precise and gently decisive. It is an interesting character. Still it is as if someone played the rumpled TV detective Columbo as a nattily dressed young man: some of the original charm is thereby lost.

Second, Rieger has chosen to combine the mysteries contained in several short stories, with the result that Brown seems to go from conclusion to conclusion. There is little chance for the audience to become acquainted with the characters which surround him, or even to adjust (for example) to the changing status of Flambeau, the con artist Brown first catches, then reforms, then uses as a sidekick.

Still, though the script itself races, the cast does quite a decent job of keeping up with the pace and the sudden character shifts. Brandon Parrish makes such a reasonable Flambeau one wishes there were more time to become acquainted. Adam Daniel Elliott creates the typical, official and somewhat myopic Chief Inspector led to the proper conclusions by Father Brown’s observations. Erika M. Frances, as the pivotal bakery worker, also creates a neatly sympathetic persona.

Those who surround them play several parts in rather quick succession. Kate O’Toole manages three women of disparate types, becoming most memorable as the wife of a philandering blacksmith. Michael Hoag switches from an officer of the law to a mentally challenged village character. Jon Snow plays a variety of variously honest business proprietors, while Terrance Robinson goes from a homicidal pastor all the way to a most memorable religious imposter.

Directors Allison Darby Gorjian and Betsy Roth keep the pacing fast and articulate. Jeremy Williams’ set pieces move efficiently, allowing this extremely episodic piece to flow fairly smoothly. There are some odd anomalies in Paige Draney’s costuming: all the policemen are dressed as Naval officers, and – as was stated previously – Father Brown is far too natty. Still, many other parts are costumed appropriately.

A whole schedule of events is accompanying this production, including a couple of after show parties with live music (April 6, 13 and 27) and a “Theology Night,” wherein the senior pastor of Lake Ave. Church in Pasadena will be talking the theology of Chesterton himself, who converted to Catholicism at least in part because of contact with the man who became the model for Father Brown.

What: “The Innocence of Father Brown” When: Through April 28, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 students and seniors Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com

The Undead Laugh at Fremont Centre Theatre: “Von Bach” spoofs Hollywood and horror

JR Reed is the zombie title character, avoiding Maia Peters in "Von Bach" at Fremont Centre Theatre

JR Reed is the zombie title character, avoiding Maia Peters in “Von Bach” at Fremont Centre Theatre

What if there was a true story behind a classic horror film like the old Universal, Boris Karloff “Frankenstein”? What if it was as far off from the film version as Karloff is from Mary Shelley’s reanimated character? What if, like Frankenstein or Dracula, or any of the other baseline horror movies, it had been redone and redone and redone? What if someone was intent on getting back to the actual story line? What if the monster wasn’t dead, really?

Okay, that is as close as I can get to telling you what the clever and somewhat outrageous send-up of Hollywood movie-making, “Von Bach,” is about. The Next Arena has joined with Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena to resurrect Owen Hammer’s very funny satire, based on dual Hollywood history themes. The first reflects on those actors who, like Karloff, Bela Lugosi, or Lon Chaney, age out of, but are synonymous with signature horror parts. The second involves the constant updating and twisting of those classic characters to meet a new audience.

In the admittedly silly story, Minna McPheeters (Maia Peters) has finally landed a job as a screenwriter, trying to resuscitate a film which is to be the “true story” of Von Bach, after decades of being chronicled as a bloody villain destined to remain undead. She will make his life one of love and loss instead, at least until she runs into resistance from the family of the actor most associated with the more stereotypical character (David Wilcox) intent on disrupting filming. And then there’s Von Bach himself (JR Reed), who really is undead, and very unhappy at his current reputation.

It’s all a lot of fun. Peters radiates a kind of wallflowerish sense of ambition, while Wilcox handles the pompous sponger with style. Reed radiates an earnest despair which makes the zombie doctor the most innocent and human character in the bunch. The funniest of this show has to be the elaborate collection of film clips Hammer, director Scott Rognlien, and Craig Kuehne created purportedly showing all the cinematic variations of the Von Bach franchise (my favorite: the Andy Warhol version).

Summer Herrick Stevens has a ball as the easily distracted studio executive, providing the most (if you’ll excuse the expression) biting commentaries on the industry. Matt Taylor, Lori Ann Edwards and most particularly Jonathan Howard create the world which surrounds the central characters.

Director Rognlien has worked this material more than once, bringing a comfortable energy to the Fremont Centre version. Set designer Kurtis Bedford makes much of the Fremont’s tiny space – which, fittingly for a horror-ish story, used to be a mortuary. Kate Leahy and Matt Richter balance the projections and the live work well, as lighting/projection and sound designers, respectively.

For anyone who has enjoyed those silly-scary old films, or been amused or annoyed by the frequent and often peculiar remakes of them, will find this show charming. Be sure to come early enough to check out all the film “posters” in the lobby, purportedly advertising all the Von Bach offshoots the play will discuss. In the end, as the publicity says, “love won’t die, and neither will… Von Bach!”

What: “Von Bach” When: Through March 10, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors/students Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.FremontCentreTheatre.com

Anime Live? – “Slice” proves lighthearted comedy

Scott Keiji Takeda and Aaron Takahashi square off in “Slice” the new play at the Fremont Centre Theatre (photos: Tina Ting)


Though not a devotee, I am told that one of the charms of Anime is often the blending of time periods: the language of modern man put to work on a classic story. If so, then Paul Kikuchi’s new play “Slice,” presented by the Metamorphosis Theatre Company at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, takes that concept and puts it on a live stage. The results are not particularly deep, but they are a lot of fun.

We are in feudal Japan. The young and egotistical Kai Matsuda is tired of repairing the armor of samurai. He determines to become a great sword-maker, foolishly sure of his skills and self-absorbedly uncaring of the financial predicament he creates. His mother, who works for (though not in) the local geisha house, must placate the pompous local official and his bodyguard, yet still decides to protect an independent young woman from persecution at the hands of the official’s lord. Kai must now cope with this critical observer, placate the officials who find him ridiculous, and – if possible – actually make a sword worthy of marketing.

The whole thing is performed by a small but polished cast. Their consistency and pacing create more out of this piece of theater than the story or script might suggest.

Mke Hagiwara as the leering Lord Ito and Aaron Takahashi as his bodyguard

Scott Keiji Takeda gives Kai an almost cartoonish pomposity reminiscent of the average 13-year-old. It sets the comic stage. Emily Kuroda proves very funny as the practical, worldly wise mother, which Elizabeth Ho creates an edgy toughness for the fugitive. Mike Hagiwara has a lovely time strutting about, and waggling the occasional eyebrow as the lascivious nobleman. Aaron Takahashi all but steals the show as the tough samurai guard with one quivering weakness. Though all the performances are amusing, his is laugh-out-loud funny.

Director Jeff Liu has taken this improbable plot, and made it his own, relishing the anachronistic conversation and heightening the cartoonish quality where it serves the humor. Marie Miller’s facile, mat-based set is clever indeed. Nicholas Hirata’s costuming, right down to quilted “armor,” proves evocative.

“Slice” is lightweight, but it is fun. Frankly, watching Takahashi’s character’s irrational fear blossom is pretty much worth the price of admission. Treat this one like a small, silly treat: not enough to subsist on, but awfully entertaining in the moment.

What: “Slice” When: Through November 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors/students Info: (877) MTC-8777 or http://www.metamorphosistheatre.org

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