Stage Struck Review

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Experimental Setting: “The Gondoliers” rides into Sierra Madre

Craig McEldowney, Jenna Augen, November Christine and Dan "DW" McCann are "The Gondoliers" and their wives in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]

Craig McEldowney, Jenna Augen, November Christine and Dan “DW” McCann are “The Gondoliers” and their wives in Sierra Madre [photo: Gina Long]


One of the great movements of the 20th century theater was a push to move classics of the stage out of their traditional boxes. This is, of course, most evident in the productions of Shakespeare, which was moved outside of the usual “doublet and hose” setting into all kinds of fabulous and/or symbolic situations. Such moves can make an old warhorse speak with new energy.

Indeed, even lighter works like those of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan took well to being toyed with. This spelled the death knell of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, whose totally unchanged, Victorian stagings of their operettas began to seem dusty. But it also meant that new generations could find current connections to their comedy, and the political and social commentaries the operettas were grounded in. Which brings us to the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Director and adaptor Alison Eliel-Kalmus has chosen to make the piece a play within a play, sort of, and to ground this silly tale in modern space. In her version, it is Coronation Day 1953, and most of London is madly celebrating the crowning of a new, young and vibrant queen. A group of actors must leave the general merry-making for a run-through of “The Gondoliers” prior to traipsing off to perform in Brighton – where their sets and costumes have already been sent. So, in an empty space, using whatever theatrical flotsam they can, they sing through the show in their street clothes.

From a purely practical, financial sense, setting the show this way allows one to do away with colorful period costumes (it is supposed to take place in a fantasy-era Venice), and use whatever bits of scenery are to hand. And they do. The artistic advantage to be had from this is a focus on the music – some of Sullivan’s best – and on the comparatively caustic commentary on the class system and monarchy the tale contains.

As for the performance itself, in any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta the lyrics are key. Articulation is everything. Classically trained vocalists used to singing the great operas sometimes have problems with this differing view of the art form. This production is no exception, as the chorus and occasionally a central character get more involved with the lovely music than words it is not only vital to hear but understand in order to follow what’s going on. Still, though this is particularly annoying in the first half, it does improve in the second.

The story revolves around the future of the supposed kingdom of Barataria. The king has died in an insurrection, and his long-hidden son must replace him. The problem has several facets. First, The Grand Inquisitor of Spain removed the boy in infancy and placed him with a lowly Italian peasant to be raised as his son. Now, the peasant is gone and Giuseppe and Marco, raised as brothers, are gondoliers. No one can remember which is the foster son.

So, both gondoliers, who are essentially “republican,” and therefore anti-monarchy, move to Barataria, along with their wives, to take over command of the country. Then, of course, there is Casilda, the daughter of a Spanish duke, who was married to the late king’s son when both were infants. She has fallen for another, unaware she was married, and the gondoliers both have wives. What will happen?

Dan “DW” McCann and particularly Craig McEldowney make a lively pair of gondoliers, vocally up to the parts and entertainingly egalitarian in character. As their spouses, Jenna Augen has an almost Imogene Coca-style of comic silliness, while November Christine manages an earnest passion and richness of tone one could only wish was matched by enough vocal articulation to fully get her often entertaining lyrics. James Jaeger and Joy Weiser make much silliness of the Duke and Duchess of Plaza-Toro, while Kara Masek, as their daughter, sings beautifully when called upon – and that’s about all her part is called on to do.

Also worth noting are John Szura as the Inquisitor, Leslie Thompson as the new king’s foster mother – and the person who sorts out the puzzle of the piece, and John King, who makes much out of the Spanish servant Luiz – a man with his own secrets.

In short, though there are a few rough spots, and the characters Eliel-Kalmus has created sometimes blur a bit with the characters in the musical offering, this production is a good chance to hear one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s greatest musical treasures. Still, one wonders at the choice to set the piece in this particular time period, as the juxtaposition is a bit odd: actors celebrating the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II, then coming in to perform a piece about the ridiculousness of monarchy and the class structure. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

What: “The Gondoliers” When: Through June 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $28 general, $25 seniors, $18 youth, $12 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“The Fantasticks” at Sierra Madre: Intimate Charm, Old School

Michael Anthony as El Gallo, and Kelsey Hainlen as The Girl in a rehearsal shot from Sierra Madre Playhouse's "The Fantasticks" [photo: Ward Calaway]

Michael Anthony as El Gallo, and Kelsey Hainlen as The Girl in a rehearsal shot from Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “The Fantasticks” [photo: Ward Calaway]

“The Fantasticks” holds a special place in the heart of the American theatrical community. Its Off-Broadway production is not only the longest-running musical in New York history (1960 – 2002 without a stop, and then revived in a different theater in 2006 and still going), it is apparently the longest running musical in the world.

Small (eight performers and an orchestra of two or three), graced with a timeless story, a minimalist and therefore somewhat ageless production standard, and songs and characters which hum in the brain, it has become a staple of small theaters across the country. Still, it does not sell itself. Its performers need to be up to the material in a very specific way, as there is no spectacle – no elaborate production – to hide behind.

A new production at the Sierra Madre Playhouse fiddles a bit with the standard, but that generally works to good effect. The trick is to innovate without interrupting the intimacy or the charm, something the co-directors James Fowler and Barbara Schofield achieve, though there were a couple of changes which mystified.

The tale is actually quite simple. A young girl and the slightly older boy next door fall in love despite family efforts to keep them apart. What they don’t realize is that this has been maneuvered by their fathers, who, though they present themselves as enemies, are actually good friends. To bring this to final fruit, the fathers hire a romantic-looking man and his cohorts to stage an abduction of the girl, allowing the boy to be a hero and dissolve the supposed feud. All goes according to plan until the kids find out they’ve been manipulated. Will their love survive the dashing of their romanticism?

This production makes El Gallo, the romantic man, no longer a sort of Zorro figure, but a slick cool cat in a shiny suit and an open silk shirt. Michael Anthony looks the part of a jazz man, and brings a slightly different flare to the character who both guides the audience, and takes the young people through the rough shock of growth.

Kelsey Hainlen and Daniel Bellusci are the young lovers. Hainlen sings with accuracy and authority – key elements to the part – and a just slightly overbright sparkle which fits the part. Bellusci radiates innocent wonder, and with the exception of a few close-harmony slips toward the start, sings with conviction as well. They play their parts without irony – absolutely essential if this is to work.

John Szura and Peter Miller have a lovely time as the supposedly warring fathers. A startlingly, delightfully understated Barry Schwam has quite a time with The Old Actor, hired by El Gallo to help with the abduction, and Barry Saltzman is the best Mortimer (The Man Who Dies) I have seen in some time: funny and dramatic without beating his schtick to death. Helen Frederick rounds out the cast as The Mute, who creates imaginary scenery and assists in the tale-telling.

At its best, Fowler and Schofield’s vision brings a fresh spirit to this piece. The usual “plane platform with posts” set has been augmented with the vague outline of trees – still minimalist, but with the aura of a setting. The only awkwardness comes toward the start, when several characters are required, not only to mount the platform at center stage, but then to climb further onto various boxes or chairs, get down, get up again, get down again, etc., all in rather quick succession. It’s distracting, and winds the performers at crucial moments. Yet, once the story settles in, that issue is gone.

My only other issue, and it is simple curiosity, has me question the dropping a very funny and effective line about a slop pot. Also, and far more understandably, the show uses the authors’ own 1990 optional replacement lyrics to “The Rape Ballet” (though, in the original, El Gallo goes to pains to explain he uses the term in its original Latin meaning: abduction) which make it “The Abduction” instead – their acknowledgement of a change in cultural sensibilities which made the original uncomfortable.

In short, with the exception of all that climbing up and down at the start, this production moves well and has the charm and mild magic “The Fantasticks” always brings with it. And who couldn’t afford to learn, in the end, that “we all must die a bit before we grow again.” It is, after all, the almost simplistic profundity of this show which has kept people coming back to see it, wherever it is playing, for over 50 years.

What: “The Fantasticks” When: Through July 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 students/seniors, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355- 4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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