Stage Struck Review

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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

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Lighthearted Nostalgia: “Crazy for You” taps into Candlelight Pavilion

The grander than grand finale of "Crazy for You" [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The grander than grand finale of “Crazy for You” [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The American fascination with the original, silly American musical is never-ending. Sometimes it results in revivals of some of the early greats: “42nd Street” or “Anything Goes” among them. Sometimes it leads to satire, as newer shows like “The Drowsy Chaperone” underscore our nation’s passion for their often ridiculous characters and sometimes illogical story lines. And then there is “Crazy for You,” which found the balance by giving a new, though reminiscent plot line and then peppering the piece with the best of George and Ira Gershwin’s songs.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, “Crazy for You,” the lighthearted, comic little musical, makes a surprisingly satisfying splash on their tiny stage. There’s lots of tap dancing, plenty of tuneful moments (as one would expect from the Gershwins), many good hearted musical stereotypes, and some genuine laughs. It’s a fine, if not particularly mentally taxing way to spend an evening.

The story is basic, pre-war Broadway. Bobby Child loves to dance, but his mother wants him to settle into business and marry the wealthy and suitable Irene. After he auditions rather disastrously for Bela Zangler of the Zangler Follies, he falls in line with his mother’s dreams and heads out to serve foreclosure papers on a theater in an obscure desert town in Arizona. There he meets up with every possible western type, and a girl named Polly, and having taken on the guise of Zangler, in the best tradition of such pieces decides to gather folk and put on a show.

Of course, traditional tap numbers are essential

Of course, traditional tap numbers are essential

Chris Duir makes a fine Bobby, dancing well, singing with gusto, and also able to handle the required clowning with style. Most particularly, the mirror gag he performs with Bryan Overmyer’s Zangler takes real skill on both their parts, and earns its genuine laughs. Susanna Vaughan makes a cheery, corn fed Polly, and though the chemistry between her and Duir is not particularly strong, they charge their way through the musical with an individual vitality which makes up for it.

Among the sizable cast, Overmyer and Jenny Moon Shaw also have some fun moments as the traditional comic duo, whose brief appearance in the second act adds a layer to the comedic tone. Shaw also makes a most severe mother for the energetic Bobby, and Angela Calderon ends up almost a non sequitur as the suddenly sultry Irene. David M. Laffey sticks out even over the other silly western “types” as the large and somewhat dim Moose. Yet, one could go on and on, as the cast displays both singing and dancing talent in significant abundance.

Director Neil Dale keeps the pace flowing, while Dustin Ceithamer’s recreation of Susan Stroman’s choreography is adapted well to the much smaller space. So is the set (uncredited) which has been shrunken to fit the space without losing any of its essential elements. A bravo also goes to Mary Warde for wigs which – and you’d be surprised how unusual this is – do not look so cheap/fake as to distract from the show.

Again, “Crazy for You,” despite its comparative youth, has more in common with the popular musicals of the 30s than with anything recent. Thus it is lighthearted, airy, full of tap dancing feats and silly comedy. For a moment when all you want is entertainment, it should be very appealing. And, at Candlelight Pavilion, it comes with a lovely dinner as well.

What: “Crazy for You” When: Through April 27, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53-$68 general, $25 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1524 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Something Fairly Wonderful: “The King and I” at Candlelight Pavilion

"The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from Candlelight Pavilion's "The King and I"

“The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from Candlelight Pavilion’s “The King and I”

The airwaves have recently been full of offerings celebrating aspects of the American musical theater. More than once, it has been pointed out that many, if not most of the musicals since the end of World War II have had a lot to do with clashing cultures, or with those outside the cultural norm. Certainly, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “The King and I” falls into that category, basing a lushly told story on the edgy balance between east and west.

Now, at Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, a new production of this much-loved classic has a lot to recommend it. The songs prove cheerful and remarkably timeless. The dancing – absolutely requisite to the plot line at one point – proves up to the demands. The children are cute and the adult performers handle their very individual characters with aplomb.

Of course, the story is now imprinted on a theater-lover’s DNA: In the 1860s, a British widow becomes tutor to the children of the King of Siam, enriching both their lives and futures. The actual king (Rama IV) actually did bring in a British woman to work with him in creating an aura of western civilization strong enough for him, and the son who followed him, to fend off western imperial attempts at co-opting his country. It worked. Of course, Rama was neither as backward or as “other” as this musical makes out, but the point about westernization and the innate wisdom of a non-western king is still made.

Clynell Jackson III as The King

Clynell Jackson III as The King

Clynell Jackson III makes a stridingly commanding king, even managing to keep up the patter songs like “A Puzzlement” when dealing with a recorded orchestra – a singularly difficult task. His chemistry with Jenny Moon Shaw’s Mrs. Anna kind of comes and goes, but there is enough present for “Shall We Dance” and the show’s powerful ending to work.

Shaw sings well, and exudes warmth. Indeed, the only detriment to her performance appears to be costume-related, as it takes her some time to walk naturally in a hoop skirt without gripping it in a very un-1860s kind of way. Again, however, her energy and her voice carry the piece as it should.

Shaw and Jackson, about to dance

Shaw and Jackson, about to dance


Also worthy of significant notice is Angela Briones’ Tuptim, whose bell-like singing sets the tone of innocence for the much-abused Burmese princess. Richard Bermudez makes a muscular and commanding Lun Tha – Tuptim’s clandestine lover. Stella Kim handles one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most touchingly grown-up love songs, “Something Wonderful,” and carries an innate nobility which underscores her role as first wife.

The kids are cute and willing. The staging of their entrance has been handled well by director Neil Dale, matching children to “mothers” who can guarantee placement. Jason Luke Hill makes a very likable Prince Chulalongkorn – innocent yet assured of his standing. Likewise, Wyatt Larrabee makes attractive work of Anna’s own son. The rest of the children alternate between two casts, but the ones I saw did a fine job.

Perhaps the acid test of any “King and I” is the dance/story-telling rendition of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Simeon Den’s choreography offers just enough traditional Thai movement to make it work, and his uncredited “Eliza” does a particularly nice job.

Perhaps most importantly, the thing looks right. Neil Dale has created the difference in movement which helps define differing cultures, and keeps it consistent. Chuck Ketter’s lush-looking set allows for quick changes and Dale’s direction keeps the pace hopping. The result is colorful, tuneful, and brisk. Indeed, the only thing in the show which might benefit from a bit of a slower tempo is the very end, where everything seems to happen on top of itself a bit.

For some folk it may be difficult to get beyond Yul Brenner and what he brought to the show from its very first days, through to the film and tour after tour during his lifetime. Still, sometimes something older can only become new again when one moves past a single performance to look at the show itself. This one is worth it, from a musical and a message standpoint. Give it a try. Help support Southern California’s last dinner theater. Take the kids, too. It’s a great chance to have a nice meal, see other kids onstage, and a history lesson (well, sort of) to boot.

What: “The King and I” When: Through August 4, doors open at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: meal and show – $53-$68 adults/ $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or wwwcandelightpavilion.com

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