Stage Struck Review

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Tag Archives: Jeff Lowe

A Heroic Misfire: “Journey to the West” in Covina

It’s seems a most romantic story. Jeff Lowe, a board member of the Covina Center for the Performing Arts, heard Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s score for their nascent musical, “Journey to the West” when he was in college, and fell in love. He found the music spoke to him, listened to it almost obsessively, spread CDs to his friends, and it became a part of the fabric of his life. The show, which was only produced once as a part of a festival of new musicals, disappeared until Lowe – ten years after that first listen – was able to pull together the cast and crew necessary to bring it to the stage.

Now “Journey to the West” is in an extremely limited run at CCPA, in association with Alchemy Theatre Company. West, who is directing, has combined a talented cast of varied experience, added the choreographic skills of Jenny Moon Shaw, costumer Aja Bell and set designers/buildiers Jonathan Daroca, Dan Malarky, Jeremy Ojeda and Jesse Runde. The show is on its feet.

The good news is the quality of his troupe. The bad news, sadly, is that these fine people’s talents cannot counteract the fact that the show itself just isn’t very strong. Add some technical glitches, and the net result is simply not ready for prime time.

The story is is based on one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, and an elemental hero’s journey. Jiang-Lai, an arhat or minor god, is forced to return to earth as a human child unaware of his immortal past, and to grow up and complete a specific quest within a certain time frame if he wishes to return to the skies. In his quest he is aided by Kuan-Yin, the beautiful arhat who loves him, and thwarted by Hou-Lai, a jealous arhat who wants Kuan-Yin for himself. He gathers three acolytes – the monkey god Monkus, a boar-like demigod Tu-Bao, and the river dragon Tsunami. They also protect, or divert, him on his journey to find the sutras which will save mankind.

R. Adam Trent makes a charmingly innocent Jiang-Lai. Andrea Somera becomes a richly heart-felt Kuan-Yin. Both sing well and lead the cast in every way. Yet, here is also the underscore to the technical issues of the piece. Whereas Somera is comparatively easy to hear throughout, Trent’s mic is so placed that his lines – both spoken and sung – are often too soft. This is only made worse by the mics on the live band (particularly the guitarist), which are left way too hot and create a booming musical “underlay” which has a tendency to drown out singing and spoken lines on a regular basis. This is bad for many, but most painfully true in the case of Brian Piernat’s Monkus, who introduces himself in a hip-hop rap which looks like it might be quite clever, but nobody can hear at all.

William Crisp looks terrific and sounds even better as the menacing Hou-Lai. Paul Stuflosky is just silly enough to be the boorish Tu-Bao, and Kenny Ugwa has a wonderful time as the somewhat “iffy” helper, Tsunami. Yet, in Ugwa’s case an introductory song reminiscent of reggae ends up with no accompaniment at all (other than something going boing on occasion). This leaves both Ugwa and the chorus behind him searching for key and harmony, which is especially unfortunate given the truly ingenious visuals which accompany this moment.

In other words, the audio design credited to director Lowe needs significant overhaul, and music director Matthew Capurro – the liaison to the band – would be a large part of that as well. They should also address the blank spots between scenes: moments screaming for some sort of transition. But to just condemn the show because you have trouble hearing it properly, or it’s staged a bit choppily, would not really say all that needs saying. One still must wrestle with a couple of essential facts about the script itself.

First, Oberacker and Taylor bit off a very, very long and complex story which they have tried with only moderate success to fit to the length of a standard American musical. The result is a show which, including a standard intermission, comes in at about three hours long. Secondly, though some of the music is quite beautiful, including the tune to “Happy Little Arhat,” and “I’ve Learned Mine,” the lyrics are far too often very fast-paced patter songs which are difficult to spit out, and regularly offer up such predictable and simplistic rhythm and rhyming schemes as to be comparatively unmemorable. In the end, the show can’t really tackle all that the novel wanted to say, and tries to cram the rest into one long final musical number.

Still, there has been a lot of hard work put into producing “Journey to the West.” Shaw’s choreography proves fascinating from start to finish, and there are captivating and innovative uses of dance as incidental to the plot (especially the dancers with lanterns signaling elements of life force) which make a powerful visual statement. The chorus is good – very good – and the energy in the production is high.

Which makes a person wish they could hear it all. Which makes one wish even more that the things these talented folk have worked so hard on were more worth hearing, as written. I can empathize with Lowe falling in love with something he wants the world to see. I also empathize from experience with the syndrome – I’m sure at play here – of working on a production for long enough to become convinced it’s awesome simply because one is living inside it for so long.

Sadly, the only thing which can assist this production other than a rewrite is to at least get the sound right. Perhaps the sense that one must have the story explained at the end will be less powerful if one can hear what people are saying and singing along the way.

What: “Journey to the West” When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave, in Covina How Much: $30 and $40 Info: (626) 331-8133, ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

It’s Good, If You Can Catch It: On Golden Pond’s Short Stay in Covina

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts' "On Golden Pond"

Joe Parrish and Rosemary London lead the cast in Covina Center for the Performing Arts’ “On Golden Pond”

As comfort-plays go, you can’t do much better than “On Golden Pond,” by Earnest Thompson. Written originally in 1979, it has been updated by the author several times since, for film and later productions, to keep pace with the shifts which have made the timeless places less so over the years. Yet, at its core this play is less about place than character, and a good production of the play focuses on the creation of people you can believe care about each other.

Given this essential factor, “On Golden Pond” as presented at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts is, indeed, a good production. The performers range from good to very good, and the feel of their interrelatedness is right. This sense of ensemble makes it possible for director Jeff Lowe to shift from a very representational setting to what he calls a “more stripped away” feel – something comparatively unusual with this particular piece.

The story has been a film, and on stage locally many times. Norman Thayer, a crusty retired professor, and his wife Ethel, both at the tail end of life, return for another summer to their well-worn cabin at a lake they have loved since their individual childhoods. There they are joined by their somewhat estranged daughter Chelsea, and her new companion Bill, who end up leaving Bill’s 13-year-old son Billy behind as they move on to Europe. The time proves transformative to Norman, who finds Billy an antidote to the evidence of age’s toll, and to Chelsea, as she comes to terms with her relationship with what she sees as a demanding and consistently displeased father.

Again, this really only works if both Norman and Ethel are not only believable as individual actors, but believable as a richly fond couple whose mutual love and respect has kept an outwardly frustrating marriage very much alive. Joe Parrish and Rosemary London do just that, giving an almost constant, subtle underscore to the brusk familiarity of their lines which make you understand how that relationship could have held on so well for so long.

Lisa Apostle handles the nervous Chelsea well, and John Catanzaro gives considerable humor – and another underscore of relational wisdom – to her beau. Tyler Campbell has a lovely time as the somewhat simple, earnest mailman who was Chelsea’s long-ago summer boyfriend. Most importantly, Jackson Capitano becomes quite convincing most of the time as Billy, and the chemistry between him and Parrish creates a significant factor of charm in the production. Capitano does need to occasionally slow his lines a bit to be sure we get all the humor in them, however.

Set Designer Dillon Nelson has provided the requested skeletal set. It works better than one expects, allowing for some of the show’s running “gags” – the screen door’ issues, the tendency for Norman to lock the door when his wife is outside – to work better than one would expect simply by being offstage. Sound designer Steven Humenski has managed to mesh a few bits of the film score in at just the right times, and of course the calls of the lake’s loons.

“On Golden Pond,” when done as well as this, is a peaceful thing. It is not a stunning new statement of life. It is not cynical or challenging. Rather, it is an homage to aging and relationship, and as such says things that few plays have said better. This production is certainly worth seeing, but you’ll have to be fast to catch it. Though it only opened on June 19, it will close on the 28th.

What: “On Golden Pond” When: through June 28, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N Citrus Ave in Covina How Much: $15 – $25 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext. 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com

“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” – a Musical Romp at Covina Center

Sometimes a musical is just for laughs. One well done, even by a small or semi-pro theater, can be a truly relaxing way to spend an evening. Taken all in all, that’s what you’ll find at Covina Center for the Performing Arts, where the Broadway spin on “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” – the 2006 Tony-nominated musical by David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane – has taken up residence. Ridiculous, raucous and energetic, the CCPA production overcomes its occasional amateur underpinnings to have most of the makings of a hit.

The silly tale is essentially the same as the film: longtime flim-flam man Lawrence Jameson is making an impressive living along the French Riviera by pretending to be a financially strapped prince. Word spreads that another con artist known as The Jackel is treading on his turf. Then, he meets Freddy, a course and youthful grifter, and operating under the assumption that this is that competitior, the comedy begins.

Freddy helps Lawrence extricate himself from the grasp of a Oklahoma heiress bent on marriage, then both turn their attention (and are soon betting on) innocent young American heiress Christine. All the while, Lawrence’s stalwart ally Andre finds himself first distracting and then drawn to the middle aged, wealthy Muriel (one of Lawrence’s cast-offs), to great comic effect.

Central to the success of this venture are the performers, and here all the main characters are delightfully realized. Jeff Lowe gives Lawrence the faux sophistication necessary for his particular style of con, laced as it is with an air of underlying practicality. Jeremiah Concepciion is just dignified enough, and yet just goofy enough, to make Andre particularly lovable. Jenny Moon Shaw has a ball with the increasingly devil-may-care Muriel, and Katie McConaughy makes the most of the stereotypical Oklahoman.

Stephanie Draude manages her own balance of gee-whiz innocence and heat, as the girl who becomes the target for both men. Still, nobody has the chance to chew the scenery, or enjoys doing so with such obvious pleasure, as much as Nicholas Herbst. As Freddy, his nonstop energy powers much of the comedy, as it should in this work. Surrounding these folk are an ensemble, who create the rest of the atmosphere, and sing and (for the most part) dance with more than expected polish.

Director Wendy Friedman keeps this thing moving, using the fairly small CCPA space with considerable creativity in order to do so. Choreographer Adrianna Castillo brings originality and energy to the dance moments, finding ways to highlight the best of her variously-abled ensemble. Joshua Prisk’s lighting design becomes a character, using the comparatively sophisticated CCPA system to great affect. Melissa Morin’s costuming, though sometimes a bit low-rent, certainly has most of the woman looking glamourous.

Though I am not often an advocate of recorded orchestras, in this venue the choice is a wise one. The peculiar acoustics of this former movie house have a tendency to leave the sound of live musicians bouncing around in the rafters, and the musicians themselves stuck in odd spots within the theater space. A recording can be aimed, and tempered, allowing a consistent balance between singers and instruments.

Indeed, the main weaknesses tend to lie mostly with the ongoing challenge at this venue: the weird height of the stage space itself, and the large expanse of plain, flat back curtain which continuously underscores that fact. An odd series of arches and columns simply disappear against that blah scrim, making what is supposed to be the recurring setting of an imposing mansion look more like something built from Tinker Toys. There is no set designer listed, so this may be a matter of borrowed material, but in general this company needs to address what to do with that background.

One advisory: unlike many Broadway musicals, this one is not for children. The discussion is sometimes crude, and often scatalogical in language and intent. Still, for the more adult, this thing is a hoot. In short, go see “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” for relaxing grown-up laughs, without the need for much in the way of mental calisthenics to disrupt the fun.

What: “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” When: Through March 10, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave., Covina How Much: $28 and $38 Info: (626) 331-8311, ext. 1 or ww.covinacenter.com

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