Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: John Iacovelli

“Valley of the Heart” at the Taper: Solid Script (Mostly) But Uneven Performance

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The two families whose interdependence becomes essential in Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum

As someone who has taught history for a few decades, there is no doubt that the ugliness of the Japanese Internment is one of the several inexcusable black marks on our American story. At a time when the fate of immigrants and refugees has been put into question by some elements of government yet again, it is good to go back and look at the ugliness of the past, if only to warn and mobilize those in the present.

From a theatrical standpoint, what matters is how this is addressed. Should it be a history lesson, a polemic, or a smaller, human story which underscores the wrenching effects of a historic wrong? In Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, this last proves far more powerful than some of the other recent attempts to refocus our collective memory on the concentration camps on US soil where people were held for the simple sin of being of Japanese descent.

The script is strong, most of the time – more consistently engaging and personal than many of Valdez’s works. The production is as well. A couple of performances, and an awkward tacked-on ending mar this piece, and they do so in ways which pull one out of the story and jeopardize the very empathy the play otherwise engenders.

The play is the story of Japanese farm family in what is now the Silicone Valley just as World War II begins, and the Mexican family living on their property, helping them work the land. Both fathers are immigrants, struggling to balance their old traditions with the changing world their children inhabit. They are proud, if reluctantly interdependent men fashioning an American life.

When Benjamin Montaño falls for Thelma Yamaguchi, it flies in the face of all those family expectations. Thelma is in line for an arranged marriage with her brother’s roommate at Cal, and between cultural disconnects and lack of independent income, Benjamin has little chance. Then Pearl Harbor changes everything.

With the Yamaguchi’s farm in jeopardy, and arrests and internments looming, the young couple elopes, but then must cope with Benjamin’s agreement to keep the farm going while his wife is shipped off with her family to a desolate area of Wyoming. How the two families experience war, changing status, and the sheer unreasonableness of their lives’ shifts makes history come alive.

As Benjamin, Lakin Valdez shows passion, character, and pain as he grows into responsibilities beyond what he expected. Melanie Arii Mah gives Thelma the awkward stance of someone rooted both in American culture and the traditions and rigid roles of her parents’ world.

Likewise, the two mothers – Joy Osmanski as Thelma’s, and Rose Portillo as Benjamin’s – have an authenticity in their portraits of women deeply concerned for their families and wrenched by the choices made. Also worthy of note are Justin Chen as the Yamaguchi’s college student son, Moises Castro as the teenaged younger son of the Montaños, and Scott Keiji Takeda as the privileged city boy arranged to marry Thelma.

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between these other naturalistic and connected performances and that of Christy Sandoval, as Benjamin’s younger sister, and Randall Nakano as Thelma’s father. Both seem more rooted in the implied tradition of Kabuki, speaking their lines with an artificial, bombastic quality which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the production, at least until Nakano’s has a health issue which must be treated more naturally. Granted, there are other hints of Kabuki, including Mariela Arteaga and Michael Naydoe Pinedo’s work as Kurogo – the anonymous persons in black who handle prop and set changes and (at least in this case) provide the occasional necessary extra character in the story. Still, Sandoval and Nakano interrupt the rhythm and reality of the play.

One is surprised at this, given that the playwright is also the director. His long history with El Teatro Campesino (an associated producer of this piece) means he is no neophyte at directing, and this is his play to interpret and work into a cohesive whole. What works so well most of the time trips up on these two performances.

Still, there is much to recommend here. The use of shðji screens and projected environments by scenic designer John Iacovelli, especially when combined with the representational actions of the Kurogo, make for powerful visuals and set the tone for the struggles within. Lupe Valdez’s costumes set the period and economic structures with subtle ease.

And, of course, there is the terrifically important tale of two immigrant cultures in California, and their joint response to the terrible inequalities of their time. As such it proves particularly powerful, and rather hopeful.

What: “Valley of the Heart” When: through December 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Monday, November 19 (and no performance on Thanksgiving). Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99. Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org Read more of this post

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“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

“Breaking Through” – Strong Production, Cliche Story at Pasadena Playhouse

Nita Whitaker, Alison Luff, Teya Patt in BREAKING THROUGH. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Nita Whitaker, Alison Luff, Teya Patt in BREAKING THROUGH. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

One of the trickiest things to write about, for either stage or screen, is the interior of the entertainment business. In part due to the overall public fascination with fame and its potentially fleeting nature, everyone thinks they already know everything they need to. And what most people know is the soap-opera aspects emphasized by the tabloid-style press and by episodic television. This may indeed be what the interior of the entertainment business really is, but to explore it risks being either obvious or repetitive of all other attempts to look at the same thing.

Take as example the new musical just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Breaking Through” with a book by Kirsten Guenther and the songs of Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz, tries to explore the world of the popular music industry in this risky and treacherous age. Based on Kahanovitz’s actual experiences, it boasts a strong musical core, and reasonably interesting characters but cannot escape the stereotypical melodrama of the oft-told tale.

The story follows Charlie Jane, the daughter of a once-popular musical star who fell and vanished over a decade before. She writes wistfully interesting songs and comes to her mother’s old record company to try her hand at stardom. What happens, of course, is that the machine which is the modern music industry offers the Faustian choice between personal artistic integrity and fame. The choices Charlie Jean makes, and the examples around her of the outcomes of others choices, create the drama.

As the central character, Alison Luff manages the combination of innocence and drive which makes Charlie Jane feel genuine. She sings in more than one style with an authenticity legitimizing her rise, even as she morphs into a standardized pop star look. As her roommate and pal, who tries to keep her realistic, Teya Patt has show-stealing moments and provides a reality check not only for Charlie Jane but for the audience. Matt Magnusson, as the established star who becomes Charlie’s segue into the recording company system, finds a credible balance between genuine talent, captivation with his own image, and a deep fear of irrelevance.

Perhaps the two most captivating character studies, however, come in supporting roles. As the industry executive who ends up piloting much of Charlie’s career, debating her own choices in the process, Nita Whitaker climbs beyond the usual stereotype with strongly evoked character and a powerful song of internal monologue, “For the Best,” which stops the show. Playing a star eaten up by the system, Kacee Clanton does more than provide a warning, creating a particular pathos which also climbs beyond her stereotypical lines.

An ensemble of talent and precision backs up the story, and aided by Tyce Diorio’s choreography and John Iacovelli’s mobile set, creates the atmosphere in which Charlie Jane’s story unfolds. Director Sheldon Epps has avoided the pitfalls of such an episodic tale by using this ensemble and this amazingly facile collection of set pieces – aided impressively by the projections of Kaitlyn Pietras – to create a constant flow from space to space and time to time, in and out of concert sessions into intimate spaces without one extra breath. Indeed, if this show could become superior based on pacing and professionalism, the job would be done, and done well.

The original songs represent all the styles in discussion, providing not only mood but a comparison between the glitz of packaged popular music and the more intimate songs expressive of individualism. This appears the show’s creators are most interested in pushing forward: the villainy of the “music machine” which homogenizes the musical talents it absorbs. In this it succeeds, though by itself it cannot overcome the melodramatic nature of the general storyline. If the top studio executive, played by Robert W. Arbogast, (the show’s major villain) could twirl a mustache, he would. The sweetness of the heroine and the villainy of the system are so intense it becomes simplistic.

Which is all to say that “Breaking Through” proves visually and musically interesting. It is profoundly well produced. Unfortunately, it has little to say which is actually new, or particularly subtle. And this may be its breaking point. Musicals today are expected to fall into one of two categories: the “just for fun” shows reminiscent of the extravaganzas of the 30s, and musicals with something specific, and fairly profound, to say. This show falls in that gray area somewhere in between.

What: “Breaking Through” When: Through November 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $87 with premium seating at $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Kiss Me Kate” at Pasadena Playhouse: an old friend, a new spin

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in “Kiss Me Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Earl Gibson III]

The story of “Kiss Me Kate” has always been worthy of note. The first winner of a Tony for Best Musical, it was the surprise come-back victory for Cole Porter, and his most successful creation in a lifetime of writing songs for the theater. Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, and inspired by famed 1930s productions adapting familiar shows to an African American cast, director Sheldon Epps has taken this backstage musical in a similar direction.

For the most part, this offers up a freshness, making a wittily familiar favorite something one can see through a new lens. Still, there is some unevenness to tighten up before it has all of the impact one could wish.

The essential story looks at a theater company about to start their out-of-town try-out of a new musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The director, producer and star is a famed and rather pompous actor named Fred who has recruited the equally famous wife he divorced a year before to play Katherine, the female lead. Thus the edgy relationship between their characters onstage is reflected in an equal edginess offstage, with comic results. Meanwhile the secondary female, playing Bianca, hangs all over Fred while stringing along her longtime partner, whose gambling habit is about to get everyone in trouble.

Beginning with the blues/gospel styling of the iconic “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the audience knows this production is going to be challenging its expectations. Jenelle Lynn Randall, as the leading lady’s dresser, grabs attention from the very first note. Merle Dandridge, as the obstinate Katherine, lives up to the romantic yet commanding part of the spurned lover ready for change, and sings the great “So In Love” from deep in her soul.

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer  [Photo: Earl Gibson III]

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer [Photo: Earl Gibson III]


Joanna A. Jones makes a deliciously wicked Bianca, delighted in her own sexuality, while, as her partner, Terrance Spencer’s gee-whiz charm and muscular dancing make that couple’s moments on stage among the most entertaining. Also impressive as a dancer is Rogelio Douglas, Jr., whose “Too Darned Hot” with Randall provides the steamiest moment. Indeed, the entire company – ensemble most definitely included – puts their whole heart and soul into this undertaking with attractive results.

A special nod goes to John Iacovelli for a set which evokes period without becoming boxy, and to David K. Mickelsen for the colorful costumes which evoke the quasi-period feel and the color of old style Broadway musicals. These two help to keep the show in its own era: as a self-styled “American Negro Theater” production in the 1940s.

There are a couple of issues, however. The much-touted star, Wayne Brady, makes that central figure of the producer/actor/director extremely human, but almost too human, too sensitive. The character needs to be, at least when “on,” more of a figure of ego, capturing the stage with an almost larger-than-life quality. That would make his more human, more fragile private moments stand out. Here it all blends, which dilutes the energy of the piece – a situation not aided by a singing voice occasionally on the edge of flatness.

Also, though Jeffrey Polk’s choreography is lively and sometimes impressively athletic, its overt sexuality sometimes seems out of keeping with the time period portrayed. As example, why would an actress’ dresser strip down, mid-show, on opening night, in an alley?

Still, it is fun to see “Kiss Me Kate” again, and fascinating to see how small shifts here and there create a new underlying theme to the piece. And, of course, one more chance to hear that silly song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is never amiss. Also, the opening of this production signals the unveiling of the new carpet and especially the new seats in the theater. That in itself is worthy of celebration.

What: “Kiss Me Kate” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $57 – $145 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

A New Romance: “Sleepless in Seattle” the musical, at Pasadena Playhouse

The Ensemble search for that someone "Out There"  in "Sleepless in Seattle" at the Pasadena Playhouse

The Ensemble search for that someone “Out There” in “Sleepless in Seattle” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Apparently I am one of about three people in the western world who has never seen the film “Sleepless in Seattle.” This allowed me to approach the brand new musical just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse with a completely open mind. Fortunately, I had with me someone who describes that story as “the most romantic movie ever made.” Given this, I could evaluate the show in the abstract (ie: was it good as a piece of theater), and also get feedback as to whether it was true enough to the treasured film not to send people out in a huff.

The answer to both questions is a charmed, if not particularly deep yes. The humor and optimism which radiates from this production can become infectious. The sweetness of the book, by the film’s screenwriter, Jeff Arch, may sometimes border on the saccharine, but plays well as a musical. Ben Toth and Sam Forman’s songs vary from clever and apt to rather obvious, but the sum works better than its parts.

This is, in large part, due to two elements: a focused, emotionally engaged and genuine, ensemble cast and the crispness of Sheldon Epps’ direction. Epps seems to specialize in keeping an episodic tale hopping, and here is no exception. The energy becomes a given, and makes the entire production pop.

The story, for any who may not know it by heart, is this: Sam is an architect raising his son Jonah alone after the death of his wife. It has been a year, but he is resistant to looking for new companionship, until Jonah calls an all night talk show, puts him on, and he becomes the much-discussed lonely man known only as “Sleepless in Seattle.” Annie is engaged to Walter, a good, solid man who loves her even though she cannot help but feel she has settled for security rather than romance. Through a somewhat convoluted circumstance, her letter to Sleepless in Seattle ends up sent to the radio station, is picked up by Jonah and read, and thus begins a drive to maybe bring them together.

Tim Martin Gleason is both strong and vulnerable as Sam. As his gleefully boorish best friend Rob, Todd Buonopane has a delightful time, especially when teamed with young Joe West as an enthusiastic Jonah. Chandra Lee Schwartz manages the balance of wistful romantic and practicality as Annie. Robert Mammana brings a nobility to the hapless Walter. Sabrina Sloan creates the crispness which balances Annie’s romanticism as Becky, her best friend and boss. All of these folks are backed by a strong ensemble which creates character after character as needed.

Joe West, as Jonah, with Sam and Annie (Tim Martin Gleason and Chandra Lee Schwartz) atop the Empire State Building in "Sleepless in Seattle"

Joe West, as Jonah, with Sam and Annie (Tim Martin Gleason and Chandra Lee Schwartz) atop the Empire State Building in “Sleepless in Seattle”

The choreography of Spencer Liff proves bubbly and current, and works well with the near-choreography which consistently flows people and furniture through John Iacovelli’s equally facile projection screens and pieces of set. Movement is key throughout this show: the build of tensions – which would be killed by lag time – are central to the plot. So too are Brian L. Gale’s projections which move us from the Seattle waterfront to the top of the Empire State Building, and (at least usually) highlight specific performers as they make musical commentary on the fly.

Which is all to say that “Sleepless in Seattle” is not making a huge social statement, and is not intended to. Neither are its songs going to stand out as certain ones from, say, “Fiddler” or “Wicked” do. Still, the show is crisply executed, cheerful, and light-hearted: the perfect combination for an unbridled romantic. Its performers are strong, and make their characters’ humanity stand out, meaning that minor glitches in lyric or tech do not define the production because you are busy caring about the people. And that, after all, is what makes for a good, satisfying romantic story.

What: “Sleepless in Seattle” When: Through June 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $64 – $107, with premium seating for $100 on weeknights and $145 on weekends Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Worth the Waiting: a glorious “Waiting for Godot” at the Taper

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in the Mark Taper Forum's excellent "Waiting for Godot" (photo: Craig Schwartz)

Back in the early 1980s, I was substituting in a local high school when a young lady I knew dashed in. “I have five minutes before my next class. Can you explain ‘Waiting for Godot’ to me?” I can tell that story in almost any company and have people laugh. Even those who don’t know “Waiting for Godot” know enough about it to consider the question ridiculous. Indeed, playwright Samuel Beckett, in keeping with the absurdism which crept into theater with this play, absolutely refused to do any explaining of the thing himself.

The play is, essentially, about waiting – a waiting where, as the first line pronounces, “Nothing can be done.” Often times, this becomes a tedious exercise in that process, but not at the Mark Taper Forum. There an exquisite production elevates the play to something like a wry dream – an essential look at human character, and the elemental humor and pathos of existence.

Central to this success are the duo of Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, whose connection as the waiting men Estragon and Vladimir becomes a living thing. Their constant intertwining of line, of mood and even of whimsy gives an energy to the piece. This, in turn, keeps one connected to character and content in a play which has lots of both in place of a plot.

The tale, such as it is, is of two men – longtime wanderers – who have been told they must wait for the arrival of a man named Godot in a rather bleak spot on the landscape. So, they wait. Each day, as it ends, a boy (LJ Benet) arrives to say Godot will come tomorrow without fail. It is a fool’s waiting, but it is required, and so this is what the men do. The owner of the land harumphs by, accompanied by a nearly animalistic slave. Still, the men wait.

Hugo Armstrong’s beastly, inarticulate and beleaguered Lucky and James Cromwell’s worldly and pompous Pozzo add to the mood and tone with a fascinating and disturbing physicality. Still it is Mandell’s sighing, fatalistic Estragon and McGovern’s negotiating, honor-bound Vladimir who make the piece as compelling as it is. The tight and active direction of Michael Arabian keeps the thing from devolving, as it sometimes has, into a kind of costumed panel discussion. That vitality proves key.

So does the absolutely remarkable, Dadaist set by John Iacovelli and by Brian Gale, whose projections and lighting effects tie in with the set itself brilliantly. Indeed, be sure you are seated early enough to see the Dali-like shadows which play upon the backdrop before the show begins. It sets just the tone necessary to start sweeping the audience into the mood.

I will admit leaving the theater gleeful. This production is what I always hoped “Waiting for Godot” could be. One thinks of those exceptional plays and playwrights who have arrived since (Suzan-Lori Parks and her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Top Dog/Underdog” come particularly to mind) and been given permission to have characters exist and be explorable, rather than having to live inside a story line. The legacy of this play cannot be overstated. It is a delight to go back and see, in such a powerful production, that initial inspiration.

As for the student who asked me to explain the unexplainable in five minutes, so long ago? The answer was – obviously – no. I have no idea how the essay she was supposed to write in her next class came out, but she was furious at not having a definitive answer. Don’t expect one from me now, either. That’s for you to explore for yourself, after you go see this particularly articulate incarnation of the thing.

And you should go. It would be difficult to find a better rendition.

What: “Waiting for Godot” When: Through April 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $65 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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