Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Once upon a time, Damon Runyan was a household word. His stories, with their very specific form of dialogue and wry humor, celebrated the gamblers and chiselers of early 20th Century Broadway in a way nobody else has ever matched. Today, most who know of him at all do so thanks to the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls,” based on two of Runyan’s stories by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and set to music by Frank Loesser.
Now at Whittier Community Theatre, as the first production of their 96th season, “Guys and Dolls” is guaranteed to charm, as always. The songs are always fun, and the storyline is essential urban Americana. At WCT the cast is mostly up to the task of making the show shine, the band, though a bit uneven in timbre, handles the music well, and the flavor of the piece – best called earnest silliness – shows through.
The story follows two paths. In the first, longtime gambling promoter Nathan Detroit searches desperately for a venue for his floating crap game while holding off showgirl Adelaide, who dreams of marriage after 15 years of being Nathan’s fiancé. In the second, Nathan tries to raise funds by betting card sharp Sky Masterson he cannot take Sarah Brown, central figure of the local Save A Soul Mission, to Havana for dinner. What deal will Sky swing to make it happen?
Director Karen Jacobson has assembled a cast of WCT regulars and specific character performers to solid effect. Jason Miramontes makes a comparatively subtle Sky, and handles his songs well, with the exception of the particularly difficult “My Time of Day”. As his challenge, Sgt. Sarah, Ciara D’Anella warms to the part as the show goes on, and at her best sings with considerable charm, particularly on the silly “If I Were a Bell” and “Marry the Man Today.”
Still, the best of this production is the interplay between Nathan and his three minions, and between Nathan and Adelaide. Carlos Lopez gives Detroit the combination of business sense and innocent guile that makes him so endearing. His minions, the three “tinhorns” – Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie (Jay Harbison, Chris Mathews and Richard De Vicariis) – do a very solid job with the show’s signature introductory trio, “Fugue for Tinhorns” and Harbison continues to charm with “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. All three have engaged with their characters in very solid fashion.
Still, the real star of the piece is Mallory Kerwin, who all but steals the show as Adelaide. Her “Adelaide’s Lament” with its silly contention that being matrimonially frustrated can cause head congestion, is as delightfully silly as one could expect, and her consistent and very funny delivery throughout makes even otherwise dry moments in the show entertaining.
Also worthy of note are James Greene as Sarah’s missionary uncle, Greg Stokes and Justin Patrick Murphy as just edgy enough gangsters, and Andy Kresowski as the prowling Lt. Brannigan. The very versatile chorus manage a number street scenes and crowd moments with individuality and style.
Indeed, more than many other musicals, “Guys and Dolls” depends on dancing. Choreographer Emily Turner does what she can with a comparatively motley group of performers, finding ways to keep the musical moments engaging and atmospheric. Musical director Kevin Wiley manages the live musicians in ways which generally enhances the total production.
In short, this “Guys and Dolls” may have a few shaky moments, but the production is earnest and at times quite delightful. The music is among my favorite in the classic Broadway musical canon, and thanks to a few stirling performances it is one of the finer examples of true community theater in the area. And, frankly, you can’t beat the price. Go, sit back, and revel in the fact that any Southern California company has managed to survive for almost a century.
What: “Guys and Dolls” When: through September 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee 2:30 p.m. September 17 Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
Over the past couple of years, one of the last of the strongly supported community playhouses, the all-volunteer Whittier Community Theatre, has produced several spunky productions of American musicals. Most particularly, their “Into the Woods” was quite stunning, and shows like “Quilters,” and “The Pajama Game” have garnered worthy praise. Thus, when I saw that their new production of the spoof of classic westerns, “Johnny Guitar,” leaves much to be desired, it does not come from the company’s amateur status, but from a misread on the part of those organizing the production.
“Johnny Guitar,” by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Joel Higgins, and Martin Silvestri, takes the standard western formats and, if done right, plays them all with tongue firmly in cheek. Even the story sounds like all the B-westerns from the heyday of such things. Miss Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a bar outside a small western town – a town operated in tandem by Emma, the daughter of the founder of the town bank, and McIvers, the area’s largest landowner and rancher. Emma, holding a secret passion for the outlaw The Dancing Kid, is out to destroy Vienna for her supposed romantic connection to the Kid. Into all of this rides a man of height and heart bearing a guitar instead of a gun. But does he have a more violent past? Will he help Vienna?
Yes, it’s just that silly, and the staging should add more. Sound effects must be huge, choruses should appear from behind rocks, furniture, curtains, etc. Everything must be played large and melodramatically, resulting in almost constant chuckles and some significant outright laughter. Visual comedy can be emphasized, like constant references to Johnny’s being so tall, when the actor is not. It should be fast-paced, and moderately ridiculous. That’s what makes it work.
The production at WTC can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is going to play the thing straight, and thus awkwardly, or live up to the wry humor of the script. At the start, it shows promise, when the opening ballad has the chorus suddenly pop out from behind the saloon bar, and continue singing unphased when one of their number is gunned down. The sound effects are right, and the minimalist set has just the right elements. Some of the cast – most especially Jonathan Tupanjanin, as the youngest of the outlaws – can really sing up a storm, and for the most part all sing with enough energy and conviction to make it work.
But it’s uneven. They get serious too often, and that seriousness slows things down. Sometimes the chorus sings from offstage, when having them appear, sing, and disappear would have given more stage business, and more comedy to something which begins to feel drawn out.
As Vienna, Mallory Kerwin has the heart for the thing, and a powerful voice, but is visually wrong. She should look like a slightly more risqué Miss Kitty (for old “Gunsmoke” fans) but spends much of her time in an outfit more suitable to Dale Evans. Matt Berardi has great potential as Johnny. He has the swagger and the overly cool delivery down. There could be much comedy, though, as in his “playing” of a guitar which obviously has no strings, which is otherwise just kind of awkward.
Lindsay Marsh is solid – that is, slightly overdramatic and intensely repressed, just as she should be – as the vicious Emma, while Greg Stokes makes a stolid and gruff McIvers. Jay Miramontes truly enjoys his role as The Dancing Kid, though the dancing should be emphasized more, particularly if it’s going to be as intentionally unimpressive as it appears when he finally performs. Justin Patrick Murphy, Andy Kresowski and Richard DeVicariis have a lovely time playing henchmen, posse members, bartenders and the like, and, joined with Tupanjanin, becoming the chorus for song after song.
The live band accompanying them is small but good. The mics need to be balanced more, as some (especially Kerwin’s) are cranked up too high while others are very hard to hear. Special kudos to the stage crew who utilize the elements of Mark Frederickson’s very facile set design to change scene quickly and keep the pace going.
In short, this is good enough that it should have, and could have, been better. Consistency in the over-the-top melodrama of the piece would have let to more laughter (though there definitely were some funny moments) and made it all feel more cohesive. Director John S. Francis is experienced enough to know that this. What this show needs is real tongue-in-cheek everything, as the story line is just as light as the old Saturday serials, and the music is memorable more as a satire on musicals and westerns than as great art. Still, this company deserves the community’s support. Community theater, where volunteerism is prized, is always worth supporting.
What: “Johnny Guitar the Musical” When: Through March 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
The musicals of the post-WWII years can be a fascinating window on American society at the time. Suspiciously anti-social rock stars were followed by swooning teens and made household words by Ed Sullivan. Corporations were endemic, and the fodder for satire. Unions were virtuous, not to mention victorious when fighting unreasonable management.
That last, of course, was best exemplified in the charmingly silly musical “The Pajama Game,” now enjoying a brief but spirited revival at the Whittier Community Theatre. I have a personal fondness for the show, though I know it is now seen as somewhat obscure. Still, even if it isn’t familiar to you, the score probably is, featuring hits like “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Steam Heat.”
The story is simple enough: Sid, a young and handsome factory supervisor who’s new in town, falls for Babe, the head of the union’s grievance committee. As a strike nears, their romance runs into conflict with the management-union struggles of the pajama factory where they both work. Other office workers dabble in romance, rage with jealousy, or just look on with wry amusement.
At Whittier, this “Pajama Game” has much to recommend it, even if there are a few weak spots. Amy Miramontes is charming as Babe, with an aura of worldly-wise sophistication and a charming voice. As Sid, Jason Miramontes (Amy’s husband) proves handsome and energetic, creating a charming version of this often rather wooden character, though he needs to work just a bit on pitch when he sings. Beyond the leads, the standout, if brief, performance has to be Eric Nelson as Babe’s tolerant,. charmingly uncomplicated Pop.
Other performers worthy of particular note are Tina Quick-Snedaker as Sid’s wise and motherly secretary, Justin Patrick Murphy as the lascivious union Prez, Greg Stokes as the wildly emotional time-study man Heinzie, and Jeri Harms as the intense, sensual corporate secretary Gladys – over whom Heinzie hovers. Isabella Ramirez, Becca Schroeder and Jennifer Bales do a reasonably Bob Fosse-style “Steam Heat” – the particular triumph of Schroeder’s choreography.
Indeed, the entire cast proves likable, even if there are moments of varying skill.
Director Roxie Lee has taken this episodic tale and kept the pacing moving, thanks in part to her self-designed, minimalist set. She keeps the characters earnest and well connected to each other, which adds to the flow. Musical director Brian Murphy succeeds in celebrating the sheer tunefulness of this show, including putting together a solid orchestra. Karen Jacobson gets a major nod for managing convincingly period costuming on a community theatre budget.
In short, “The Pajama Game” is a window on another time and another ethos. It is tuneful and endearing, and lets a younger generation know that those old folks weren’t quite as pure as it may seem. And it’s fun. You will easily find yourself humming the tunes as you leave, and wondering what happened to the whole universe in which this little tale takes place.
What: “The Pajama Game” When: Through September 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
Farce is an art form all its own. It demands a particular kind of rhythm, both from the performers and from the playwright. Ken Ludwig may be the best known farce-writer in America. His “Lend Me a Tenor” has become the gold standard of this kind of airy fluff. Now, at the Whittier Community Theatre, another of Ludwig’s silly pieces, The Fox on the Fairway,” offers up laughter, pratfalls and comic mayhem once again.
And once again, timing is everything. Fortunately, at WTC, the cast is – for the most part – up to the challenge. The play may not be quite as hysterical as “Tenor,” but it offers up plenty of laughs, snickers and a whole lot of golf humor. If you’ve got a golfer in the house, and want a laugh, this may be for you.
The plot – such as it is – is fairly simple. It is the day of the annual grudge-match golf tournament between Quail Valley Country Club and their arch-nemesis, Crouching Squirrel Golf and Racquet Club. Quail Valley manager Henry Bingham is sure he finally (after five years of losing) makes an unwise bet with his rival’s manager, only to find that his best player has defected to the other club. He thinks he is saved when he discovers that his new assistant, Justin, is an extraordinary golfer. The problem is Justin only plays well when not upset, something which may prove trickier than Henry thought.
Director John Francis has assembled a fine cast for this affair. Justin Patrick Murphy does everything but chew the scenery as the easily rattled Justin. MacKenzie Rae Campbell creates a delightfully volatile airhead as Justin’s fiance – the major cause of his upset. Lewis Crouse powers the piece as Henry – part bully, and part panicked investor. Greg Stokes, as the scheming head of the other club, really is as obnoxious and snotty as the character has to be.
Roxie Lee, as a club board member, and Toni Beckman as Bingham’s domineering wife, both have wonderful moments. However they both need to work on projection. Some of their funniest lines are quite hard to hear. Vincent Rodriguez – a young man for whom this show is a high school senior project – makes a fine tournament announcer, having also helped bring this production into being.
A nod must also go to Suzanne Frederickson for coming up with the perfect set for this kind of show, even if one of the swinging doors came loose due to all the slamming back and forth. Karen Jacobson must have had a ball with the costuming: finding all the truly obnoxious golf sweaters for Stokes’ character.
Indeed, there is a real sense of polish to this essentially amateur production. The sound effects are just right. The costuming is pretty much right. The set is created with farce in mind. The characters are well defined, and create the kind of ensemble which makes this particular kind of ridiculousness work. As with all of Ludwig’s plays, the humor builds: the crazy really comes out in the second half, so wait for it.
Try to catch this while you can. Sadly, WTC productions only last a couple of weekends – a part of their 92-year tradition.
What: “The Fox on the Fairway” When: Through June 15, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/children, $8 students/active military Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whitttiercommunitytheatre.org