Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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There is an elemental silliness to the movie musicals of the 1930s, but that was intentional. The films offered an inexpensive escape from the strain of the Great Depression, and quite intentionally featured lavish costumes, elaborate settings, and the kinds of visual splendor only the Busby Berkeleys of this world can provide.
In 1968, George Maimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise decided to create that silly, upbeat world in small, opening “Dames at Sea” in an off-off Broadway cafe. Though it has roamed far and wide in the meantime, “Dames at Sea” has returned to its tiny-stage roots at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, once again, a six-person cast must create all the splendor and schlock of the “go out a chorus girl but come off a star” tap-dancing magic that so enthralled our forebears.
Reducing the show once again to its minimalist beginnings works well at SMP. Director Joshua Finkel understands that the only way to play this gentle satire for laughs is to play it straight, and that’s what his cast does. Aided by Jeffrey Scott Parsons’ classic 30s choreography, heavy as always on the tap dancing, and Sean Paxton’s musical direction, they manage to make this small, silly show lighthearted fun.
Katie Franqueira leads the cast as the idealistic Ruby, arriving in NYC with nothing but tap shoes, hoping to star on Broadway. Franqueira’s Ruby has an interesting combination of earnestness and nervousness which makes some of her tap numbers a bit intense, but particularly in a delightfully Busby Berkeley-worthy version of “Raining in my Heart,” she sings with an innocence and charm which prove quite engaging.
As her love interest Dick, the sailor dreaming of songwriting, Aaron Shaw has a loose-limbed charm and the kind of wide-eyed presence which balances Franqueira’s Ruby nicely. Marissa Mayer shows the right brassy style as Ruby’s new friend in the chorus, while Ruben Bravo nearly steals several scenes as Dick’s somewhat goofy Navy buddy.
Chuck McLane, in the dual role of the theatrical producer fallen on hard times, and Dick’s commanding officer talked into allowing a Broadway show to be staged on board, has a lovely time with each, managing to carve them into individuals with their own silly moments. Jennifer Knox flounces with all the necessary ego as that show’s officious and controlling star.
Shon LeBlanc – a wizard with period costumes for small venues – has given the show the right feel. Jeff G. Rack has provided all the right set pieces, including the deck of a battleship, at a size which will somehow fit on the tiny SMP stage. In short, all the pieces are there.
In short, “Dames at Sea” is silly, tuneful, and – for some – nostalgic. It makes gentle fun of an entire film genre, but not in a mean way. Rather, that almost ferocious innocence proves an antidote to the tensions of our current world, just as was true back then. And in that, even it its occasional awkward moments, this production has something in common with what it celebrates.
Also check out the theater’s movie series, which celebrates the movies “Dames” was based on. It continues with “Footlight Parade” on July 10.
What: “Dames at Sea” When: through August 3, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an extra 2:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday, August 3 Where: The Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $45 general, $40 seniors, $25 youth up to age 21. Info: 626-355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
The classic screwball comedy films of the 1930s and 40s have remained popular from that time on because of four basic elements: the ridiculousness of the essential storyline, the crisp and evocative dialogue, the quality of and apt casting of the performers, and timing – always the fast-paced, pinpoint timing of the lines and scenes which makes the whole thing memorably funny. This is what playwright Norm Foster wants to celebrate in his play “Screwball Comedy,” now receiving its U.S. premiere at Theatre Forty in Beverly Hills.
Although Foster himself has created a play which honors all the above, with dialogue only slightly more ridiculous than the real thing, and just as deliciously improbable a plot, the current production does little with the rest. With a few exceptions the casting (or at very least character interpretation) is problematic, and the direction by Howard Storm profoundly uneven.
The play follows all the classic tropes. A rough-around-the-edges newspaper editor sends his star reporter (whose ego and nightlife have begun to erode his gifts) and an earnest young woman trying to get hired off to cover the society wedding of the son of the paper’s wealthy-widow owner. What they find is conniving on all fronts, which in turn leads to a certain amount of romantic sparks between the two.
The highlights of performance in this piece come mostly from the performers who seem to have grasped the timing aspect, even if those around them don’t always. Gail Johnston, as Jones, the editor’s secretary, is keen and consistently funny in ways one hopes the rest of the show will emulate. As the wealthy widow, Sharron Shayne has a flamboyance which works well, and an energy which powers points in the production which would otherwise wobble. As the son, hiding his gifts to keep his mother happy, Niko Boles charmingly underplays his part, making it stand out in lovely ways.
Although Lane Compton, as the egotistical ace reporter, has conquered the style of that specific kind of comedy part, he often plays against people whose timing is so slow it remains somewhat difficult to assess his gifts in that regard. As his supposed foil, the prospective cub reporter, Kate Whitney lacks that immediacy of delivery so necessary in this kind of script, where lines need to jump on top of each other to create the humor. As the gold digger trying to marry money, Jean Mackie also supplies little to play off of, as her way to embrace her character’s constant state of inebriation is to slow things down.
Daniel Leslie, as the editor, seems to struggle with his lines, though his characterization proves fitting. George Villas, as the man trying to marry the widow, is so off from the feel of the play he isn’t even giving his lines at the same volume as the rest, booming them out with overelaborate zest. David Hunt Stafford, as the grumpy, bumbling butler, is indeed funny, but funny like a recurring burlesque joke, and thus out of keeping with the rest of the tale.
Much of this lands at the feet of director Storm. Indeed, even among those doing a good job, they are flying solo – there is no sense of directorial coordination of the humor. On the other hand, the set by Jeff G. Rack uses the stage space remarkably well. The costuming by Michele Young misses at important moments, especially in over-dowdying Whitney’s character, though it generally seems to be roughly in that early 40s period. Brandon Baruch does a fine job with the lighting, absolutely necessary when you place different rooms on different parts of the set.
In short, there is nothing horribly wrong with “Screwball Comedy,” except that it doesn’t seem to have any feel of ensemble, and ensemble is what made the great screwball comedies work. It is sometimes quite funny, but not anywhere near as funny as it could easily have been.
What: “Screwball Comedy” When: Through August 19, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Reuben Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills How Much: $35. Info: (310) 364-0535 or www.theatre40.org
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the definition of what made something a Broadway-style musical was in flux. In this period a number of shows appeared which were essentially concerts sung by created characters, from those which were actually more of tribute concerts featuring the songs of a historic musical artist or group, to those which used original material and characters. Among these the most commonly done include “Always… Patsy Cline,” “Forever Plaid” and “The Marvelous Wondrettes”. One of the toughest to produce, as the performers double as the band, is “Pump Boys and Dinettes”.
Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse, “Pump Boys…” features original country songs (including one which reached the country music charts), and a minimalist plot about five buddies working in a roadside a garage and the two Cupp sisters running the Double Cupp Diner next door, on Highway 57 between Georgia and North Carolina. The guys play and are joined in singing by the ladies, who also produce pies, and serve a few guests on their side of the stage.
Frothy, tuneful and played by a cast truly enjoying themselves, “Pump Boys…” becomes a brief vacation from reality. Its cast sings with authority for the most part, and the guys prove to be excellent musicians. Indeed, their musicianship is the necessary element in making the show successful.
Sean Paxton, Michael Butler Murray, Kevin Tiernan and Jimmy Villaflor plus a quiet Jim Miller on drums, not only sing a lot of the songs but provide the entire band. Cori Cable Kidder, known to SMP audiences from her 2015 appearance as Patsy Cline, and Emily Kay Townsend provide occasional percussion, but are mostly there to sing and provide a lot of the sense of character and plot. The musicianship in all cases proves good to very good. Indeed, the only real shaky moment is a brief piece of tap choreography by Kidder.
Director/choreographer Allison Bibicoff has done what can be done to take a musical without a plot and give it a sense of authenticity on the small SMP stage. In this she is aided by set designer Jeff G. Rack’s remarkably complex set, given the size of the SMP stage space. The cast has a strong sense of ensemble, and there are moments of real charm, including Villaflor and the women saluting the charms of having a farmer tan, and Paxton’s wistful rendition of “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” – the song which made it to the charts.
Which is not to say the production is perfect. Some are better singers than actors, and some better actor/performers than singers. Still, the energy and general charm carries this piece through, and one is surprised that the show has ended, when it does. SAlaAo, if you are looking for a place to rest your brain and have an evening of tuneful fun, “Pump Boys and Dinettes” offers just that – yet another sign of the reputation SMP is building for itself.
What: “Pump Boys and Dinettes” When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 2:30 p.m. Saturdays starting July 7. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $40-$45 general, $35-$40 seniors aged 65 and over, $25-$30 youth aged 22 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or www.sierramadreplayhouse.org