Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Jeff Skowron

“Cabaret” in La Mirada: Remarkable and Timely

The cast, led by Jeff Skowron (center) welcomes you to “Cabaret” at the La Mirada Theatre [photo: Jason Niedle]

One of the most emotionally unsettling musicals to make it to the Broadway stage is John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret.” Based on John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera,” which was taken from Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Farewell to Berlin,” it shows in small the creeping infection of Nazism into the freewheeling life of early 1930s Berlin. By balancing the story of Cliff – based on Isherwood – an aspiring writer who ends up knee deep in the social shifts of the period with performances in a dark and dubious caberet, one looks at Hitler’s rise from the under side. It has always proven telling and disquieting, and absolutely fascinating.

Never has one seen it done more strikingly than in the new production just opened at La Mirada Theatre courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Between small adjustments to the script and song list, and a surreal setting worthy of classic UFA films of the time, graced with performances ranging from very fine to absolutely remarkable, this new production brings back and may even amplify the punch of the original. It is not comfortable, but then it was never supposed to be. It is, however, extraordinarily good theater.

The story follows Cliff as he moves into a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider, an aging, fatalistic spinster whom he watches fall in love with the Jewish fruit seller who is one of her less questionable boarders. Cliff becomes friends, and eventually lovers, with Sally Bowles, the Englishwoman who headlines at the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret filled with licentious and edgy entertainers led by its odd and slippery emcee. Cliff wrestles with Sally’s unique morality (or lack of it), with the fact his first real friend in Berlin turns out to be a Nazi, and with what he sees coming for Schneider and her love interest. All the while cabaret performances break into the story line to highlight the shifting winds of humor and ethic, and portend horrors to come.

There are so many things to celebrate about this particular production, but the most obvious to all is the performance of Jeff Skowron as The Emcee. Creepy, clever, cold-eyed and challenging, Skowron makes the character as lascivious and undefinable as possible, creating the chilling atmosphere which swallows all human emotion in favor a kind of sexual sarcasm. It works well and lays the foundation for all attempts at genuine feeling and lightness the show contains.

Embracing what often seems the show’s least interesting part, as he spends most of his time being the observer, is Christian Pedersen as the wide-eyed young American novelist. He gives to Chris an easily manipulated, genuinely nice guy spirit whose social innocence leads him into adventure, and to the edges of a national disaster. Zarah Mahler handles the very tricky part of Sally with an important confidence. Sally is not supposed to be as good a performer as advertised, but to do that means tamping back Mahler’s own skills until, suddenly, Sally finds her own voice on the show’s namesake song. Then she roars into life, even as her song celebrates fatalistic self-destruction.

The true standouts of the piece, other than Skowron, are Kelly Lester and Jack Laufer as the elderly, doomed romantic couple. Most particularly worthy of note is Lester’s Schneider in her wrenching “What Would You Do?”, sacrificing love for safety in a time which will allow her neither, and Laufer’s genuineness, which makes their entire affair just that much more elementally sad.

Director Larry Carpenter has reimagined this work in interesting ways. For one, removing the comparatively cutesy “Meeskite” and adding a song removed from the original Broadway production (though added to the film), “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”, thus giving added focus to the rising intensity of the thing. The use of John Iacovelli’s mobile, forced perspective drops and set pieces, the angular choreography of Dana Solimando’s cabaret numbers, the use of puppetry at a pointed moment, the mostly gray costuming of David Kay Mickelsen, and the sense of hovering doom created by Carpenter’s staging work together to make this piece – as intentionally fractured as it is – a powerful whole,

I cannot think of a time more apt for such a polished, innovative production of this work. It is good to be reminded how the innocent can become participant in the rise of horror, how quickly what is laughable can become frightening, if ignored, and how soon fear and a sense of privilege can lead people who seem otherwise reasonable into an attitude of acquiescence or complicity in the evil which comes. Read Laufer’s bio in the program if you need a further nudge. Go see this before it disappears, if you want a rich experience of what a powerful thing musical theater can be.

What: “Cabaret” When: Through February 11, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 general; student, senior and group discounts are available Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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Lighthearted Farce Done Right: “Lend Me a Tenor” in La Mirada

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of "LEND ME A TENOR." [photo: Michael Lamont]

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of “LEND ME A TENOR.” [photo: Michael Lamont]

In the world of well-crafted farces, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” has proven itself dependably clever in a variety of different settings. That is, when the cast is up to the rather specific demands of a tale about a regional opera company. Filled with classic slamming doors and mistaken identities, its sheer ridiculousness combined with its endearing characters makes it a deceptively easy hit.

Now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the McCoy Rigby Series there, a new production of this silly piece has all the required elements to make it a sure-fire hit, and the results don’t disappoint. Those who must sing really can. Those who must be over-the-top do so with delightful abandon. The look, and the timing, all enhance the whole.

In short, this “Tenor” sings like an angel.

The tale, as much as there is one, centers upon a two-room hotel suite in Cleveland in 1934. The Cleveland Opera has invited the great Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, to sing “Otello” in a one-night gala performance. When he doesn’t arrive on the expected train, panic ensues among those hovering around that room waiting for him. When he finally does show up, a series of missteps, mistakes, and eventually mistaken identities create complete pandemonium.

Director Art Manke has collected a remarkably able ensemble cast to make all of this work, and his combination of choreographed movement and pacing makes the entire thing come together just as it should.

Central to the piece is John Shartzer’s Max, the harried assistant to the company’s general manager upon whom all the pressure regarding Tito’s appearance lands. Shartzer creates in Max a wiry, anxious, and – in the end – surprisingly talented man, even in the midst of panic. As his charge, Davis Gaines makes Tito stereotypically emotional, yet with an underlying kindness which humanizes the stereotype. Both sing well, which cements a major element of the storyline.

J. Paul Boehmer gives the company’s general manager the appropriately officious combination of command and fatalism. Kelley Dorney, as Max’s starstruck fiancé, radiates an innocent sense of daring. Colette Kilroy gives the older chairman of the Opera Guild an endearing enthusiasm, while Leslie Stevens creates the aura of a budding diva as the soprano anxious to use her connection with Tito to further her career.

In somewhat smaller but no less polished performances, Catherine LeFrere has a field day with Tito’s wildly dramatic, fed-up wife, while Jeff Skowron proves consistently funny as an opera-obsessed bellhop who co-opts the role of room service waiter to snag Tito’s autograph.

The set, by Tom Buderwitz, is filled with a sense of period luxury. David Kay Mickelsen has created period costumes which evoke the era, and meet the rather circumspect needs of the McCoy Rigby audience for decorum in the play’s more sensual moments. Katie McCoy’s wigs are perfect for both time and character. In short, the visuals set the scene and allow certain outmoded elements necessary for the plot to appear historically appropriate.

This “Lend Me a Tenor” will allow for genuine and lighthearted laughter, and who couldn’t use a bit of silliness in this fractious time? Go and enjoy, and leave happily unencumbered by anything deeper than the requisite happy ending.

What: “Lend Me a Tenor” When: through November 13, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“The Little Mermaid” in La Mirada Charms Almost in Spite of Itself

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of "The Little Mermaid", part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of “The Little Mermaid”, part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

When a stage musical is created from a Disney animated film there are a few basic things to look for. How close was it to being a stage musical in the first place? How will they handle the fact some, if not all the characters are not human? Are the songs in the film appropriate and/or adequate for what one wishes to present on stage? What kind of special effects will be needed to recreate the familiar and beloved elements which made the film work, or should one move to create something new?

In “The Little Mermaid,” now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as part of the McCoy Rigby Series, the answers are extremely visual, creative in staging, and sometimes a bit of a let-down musically. Still, it can be a great way to introduce young people to musical theater as an art form, and has a lighthearted silliness which makes for appealing summer entertainment.

The story, based on a tale by Hans Christian Anderson, as reworked into a Disney film, is familiar to just about everyone by now. It follows a mermaid named Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, who yearns to leave the sea world where she feels she doesn’t belong for the world of humans. Fascinated by all she does not understand, she finds focus for her yearnings when she rescues a Prince Eric, thrown overboard from his sailing vessel, and falls in love with him. She cuts a deal with her evil aunt: her voice (though it is her signature) for legs and a chance to enter the human world.

The production uses sets and costumes designed for Broadway by Kenneth Foy, Amy Clark and, aided by Mark Koss, built for a production partnership headed by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Visually stunning, they capture an underwater feel in remarkable ways. The necessary characters “swim” with flowing fabric, Scuttle the sea gull flies and lands with authority, Sabastian has a significantly “crabby look,” and the evil Ursula’s tentacles wiggle and drape with ominous intent. It’s a great visual feast, aided by John MacInnis’ clever choreography and performed by an able ensemble of singers and dancers.

There are two great differences between the film and the stage production however, besides the obvious lack of water. First is the introduction of 14 songs with lyrics written, not by the award-winning Howard Ashman, but by Glenn Slater – whose work is comparatively pedantic. The second is a greater emphasis on the reason for Ariel’s yearning for the human world – that she doesn’t fit in under the sea – and Eric’s yearning to be a sailor rather than a prince, making both characters outsiders looking for someone who will understand. This, a response to those many who have disliked the film’s message that Ariel, as the girl, had to do all the changing in order to fit into Eric’s world.

Still, Alison Woods gives Ariel both an innocent sweetness and a remarkable voice, and makes the show worth watching. Melvin Abston has a lot of fun with Sabastian, the calypso crab. Eric Kunze, as the prince, is mostly asked to look handsome and sing well, and he does this with aplomb. Time Winters fusses charmingly as his tutor, constantly reminding him that he has duties to live up to. Adam Garst makes a sweetly geeky Flounder, and Fred Inkley becomes an imposing Triton.

Still, other than Woods, the standouts of the evening are Jamie Torcellini as the malaprop-dropping, tap dancing seagull Scuttle, Jeff Skowron in a brief but intensely memorable bit as a chef preparing a table-full of seafood dishes, and Tracy Lore as the sea witch Ursula – doing everything but twirling a mustache in her delightedly straightforward villainy. And, of course, there are those songs: “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl,” among others. These works by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman set the tone for the modern Disney animated film – a legacy which has allowed one after another to be turned into successful stage events.

So, go see “The Little Mermaid.” You’ll enjoy a visual treat, and be joined by bevies of young girls – some even in costume – who will swoon to every move, and know every important line. And this is important, really, as a gateway for a new generation’s enthusiasm for live performance. A little stage magic (and this show has quite a bit) goes a long way in that wooing process.

What: “The Little Mermaid” When: Through June 26, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Les Miz” Rises: Great musical done right in La Mirada

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of "Les  Miserables" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of “Les Miserables” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

If I had to make a list of the most fulfilling stage musicals I have ever seen, “Les Miserables” would be up there in the top five. In live performance, it offers a significant combination of strong story (well edited from another medium though it may be), strikingly memorable music, lushness, message, and star turns. When I first saw it in its original London production, one of the things which also struck me was the comparative simplicity of the performance format: tech did not outweigh content. At the time, when musical theater was full of roller skates and falling chandeliers, the production of “Les Miz” was comparatively simple – occasionally stunningly so.

Which is part of what upset me about the 25th anniversary revival tour, when it arrived at the Ahmanson. Though I am never one to insist that any theatrical work be chained to its original staging, the new rendition went higher tech, taking it a direction which, in several critical moments, picked spectacle over substance. And the performers knew it. The heart was drained from the entire proceeding.

All of this brings me to the relief I felt seeing the new rendition by the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. It’s like the show has its mojo back: strong performances, tight pacing, and a more performer-centric production. It works. It works the way it always does when it is done right: the cast has chemistry, the story has power, and the audience is swept up in the sheer melodramatic richness of it all.

A strong ensemble powers the piece, creating space for some fine performances. James Barbour brings to Jean Valjean just the right measure of fear, anger and deeply loving regret. His voice handles the extreme range of music with a naturalness which belies its difficulty. Randall Dodge’s Javert vibrates with moral conviction without becoming a complete cartoon. In the brief but powerful part of Fantine, Cassandra Murphy balances desperation and heart-wrenching despair with grace, while Michael Stone Forrest becomes memorable in the even more brief but pivotal role of the Bishop of Digne.

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Kimberly Hessler and Nathan Irvin make a splendid couple as the young and idealistic lovers Cosette and Marius, while Jeff Skowron and particularly Meeghan Holaway have delightful fun as the blatantly evil Thenardiers. Young Jude Mason makes a plucky little Gavroche, and sings with intensity and clarity beyond his apparent years. Anthony Fedorov looks scrappier than is sometimes portrayed, but still lights the egalitarian fires as the passionate student Enjolras. Valerie Rose Curiel’s voice has a slight pop overtone which sometimes seems inappropriate, but she gives the ill-fated Eponine considerable character.

Still, it is by looking at the production as a whole that one finds the most satisfaction. For me, the “tell” as to whether or not the words and story matter most is the death of Javert. This production returns to the simple, stylish, understated concept from the first production – a confirming moment which, I will admit, produced a fist-pump from me: if they got that, they got the whole balance right.

Kudos, thus, to director Brian Kite who took the best of the old and worked with it to make it new. Choreographer Dana Solimando, often in this production more of a movement coordinator, gives the piece visual style. Praise also to set designer Cliff Simon and lighting designer Steven Young. If there was an Achilles heel in this performance it came at the hands of the microphones which had a tendency to blank out at critical moments. I’m sure sound designer Josh Bessom has been on that ever since.

So, if you haven’t ever seen “Les Miserables” done on stage, this is a fine version to check out. If you have, this one will not disappoint. One can only hope that those in the future who wish to keep this remarkable musical alive will learn from the errors of their forebears that when the material is this good, quite often the “less is more” rule definitely applies.

What: “Les Miserables” When: Through June 22, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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