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In the treasure-trove of lighthearted, silly musicals, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors” has to one of the most universally beloved. Based on a “B” horror film by Roger Corman, twisted to be firmly tongue-in-cheek, it becomes a send-up of every element of early 1960s cultural framework. Now the Whittier Community Theatre brings the show to the stage once more, accompanied by a live band and filled with a youthful energy.
The tale is silly from the start. Seymour Krelborn and Audrey work at Mushnik’s Florist Shop on Skid Row. For obvious reasons, the store is struggling until Seymour produces one of his collection of exotic plants – a completely unique piece of vegetation which fascinates the public and makes the shop famous. As they cope with the rising fame, and the unique dietary habits of the plant, Seymour also worries over how to save Audrey from her sadistic boyfriend, and whether the fame he’s achieving is worth the emotional and physical cost.
Director Karen Jacobson has gathered a sharp cast to bring this lovely trifle to life. Jonathan Tupanjanin sings up a storm and looks appropriately nerdy as the hapless Seymour. Mallory Kerwin matches Tupanjanin note for note, and certainly acts the part as the voluptuously innocent Audrey. Richard De Vicaris appears in his element as the crusty, accusatory Mushnik. Matthew Berardi puts his all into the slimy boyfriend who orders Audrey around.
The show’s only major issue, which touches the leads but is most frustrating with the narrating chorus, is the uneven power and effectiveness of the performer’s body mics. Most particularly with the chorus, Mindy Duong’s Chiffon and Gracie Lacey’s Chrystal go back and forth between whose mic is on too loud, and Jenae Denise Thompson’s Ronnette often seems to not have a mic at all, which destroys the classic girl-group harmonies of their signature moments. The performers themselves sing well (though Lacey is sometimes a touch flat) but when you can only hear one of them at a time, the impact is less than stellar.
Sam Maytubby and Steven Sandborn handle the physical maneuvers of the plant life, soon named Audrey II, while Bear C.A. Sanchez gives the plant a dominating voice. The rest of the cast, an ensemble of skid row residents, sing very well, move necessary set pieces when needed, and provide a few cameo parts. Kevin Wiley’s five piece ensemble provides some of the best musical accompaniment I’ve heard at a WCT production. Indeed, with the exception of the mic glitches, the show proves one of the most polished musicals of their recent past.
Kudos go to Mark and Suzanne Frederickson for the set design, which offers a chance for the quick scenic moves so necessary to this fast-paced tale. Patty Rangel and Nancy Tyler provide just the right costumes to make the piece work.
With “Little Shop of Horrors” WCT marks the start of their 94th season. That alone is worthy of recognition. That they should be able to put up an essentially amateur production with the qualities found in this one is both remarkable and deeply satisfying. Go take a look. You’ll laugh a lot, especially if you’ve never seen the show, and help support a venerable institution working to stay relevant long into the future.
What: “Little Shop of Horrors” When: through September 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 20. Where: Whittier Community Theatre, at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students, juniors (18 and under), and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
Over the past couple of years, one of the last of the strongly supported community playhouses, the all-volunteer Whittier Community Theatre, has produced several spunky productions of American musicals. Most particularly, their “Into the Woods” was quite stunning, and shows like “Quilters,” and “The Pajama Game” have garnered worthy praise. Thus, when I saw that their new production of the spoof of classic westerns, “Johnny Guitar,” leaves much to be desired, it does not come from the company’s amateur status, but from a misread on the part of those organizing the production.
“Johnny Guitar,” by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Joel Higgins, and Martin Silvestri, takes the standard western formats and, if done right, plays them all with tongue firmly in cheek. Even the story sounds like all the B-westerns from the heyday of such things. Miss Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a bar outside a small western town – a town operated in tandem by Emma, the daughter of the founder of the town bank, and McIvers, the area’s largest landowner and rancher. Emma, holding a secret passion for the outlaw The Dancing Kid, is out to destroy Vienna for her supposed romantic connection to the Kid. Into all of this rides a man of height and heart bearing a guitar instead of a gun. But does he have a more violent past? Will he help Vienna?
Yes, it’s just that silly, and the staging should add more. Sound effects must be huge, choruses should appear from behind rocks, furniture, curtains, etc. Everything must be played large and melodramatically, resulting in almost constant chuckles and some significant outright laughter. Visual comedy can be emphasized, like constant references to Johnny’s being so tall, when the actor is not. It should be fast-paced, and moderately ridiculous. That’s what makes it work.
The production at WTC can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is going to play the thing straight, and thus awkwardly, or live up to the wry humor of the script. At the start, it shows promise, when the opening ballad has the chorus suddenly pop out from behind the saloon bar, and continue singing unphased when one of their number is gunned down. The sound effects are right, and the minimalist set has just the right elements. Some of the cast – most especially Jonathan Tupanjanin, as the youngest of the outlaws – can really sing up a storm, and for the most part all sing with enough energy and conviction to make it work.
But it’s uneven. They get serious too often, and that seriousness slows things down. Sometimes the chorus sings from offstage, when having them appear, sing, and disappear would have given more stage business, and more comedy to something which begins to feel drawn out.
As Vienna, Mallory Kerwin has the heart for the thing, and a powerful voice, but is visually wrong. She should look like a slightly more risqué Miss Kitty (for old “Gunsmoke” fans) but spends much of her time in an outfit more suitable to Dale Evans. Matt Berardi has great potential as Johnny. He has the swagger and the overly cool delivery down. There could be much comedy, though, as in his “playing” of a guitar which obviously has no strings, which is otherwise just kind of awkward.
Lindsay Marsh is solid – that is, slightly overdramatic and intensely repressed, just as she should be – as the vicious Emma, while Greg Stokes makes a stolid and gruff McIvers. Jay Miramontes truly enjoys his role as The Dancing Kid, though the dancing should be emphasized more, particularly if it’s going to be as intentionally unimpressive as it appears when he finally performs. Justin Patrick Murphy, Andy Kresowski and Richard DeVicariis have a lovely time playing henchmen, posse members, bartenders and the like, and, joined with Tupanjanin, becoming the chorus for song after song.
The live band accompanying them is small but good. The mics need to be balanced more, as some (especially Kerwin’s) are cranked up too high while others are very hard to hear. Special kudos to the stage crew who utilize the elements of Mark Frederickson’s very facile set design to change scene quickly and keep the pace going.
In short, this is good enough that it should have, and could have, been better. Consistency in the over-the-top melodrama of the piece would have let to more laughter (though there definitely were some funny moments) and made it all feel more cohesive. Director John S. Francis is experienced enough to know that this. What this show needs is real tongue-in-cheek everything, as the story line is just as light as the old Saturday serials, and the music is memorable more as a satire on musicals and westerns than as great art. Still, this company deserves the community’s support. Community theater, where volunteerism is prized, is always worth supporting.
What: “Johnny Guitar the Musical” When: Through March 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
On the short list of 20th century playwrights whose work I love in part because if their rich use of language, James Goldman is right up there. Take, as example, his play “The Lion in Winter.” In many ways it proves very talky, but this drama pitting King Henry II of England against his sons, his imprisoned wife, and the King of France remains a constant favorite because the characterizations are rich, and the talk is clever, fast-paced and unrelentingly poetic. It’s a feast for the both the imagination and the ear.
Yet this can all careen off the tracks if the pace is too slow, or broken up too much. Heat drives this play, and heat onstage dissipates quickly if not constantly fed. Which brings me to the new production at Whittier Community Theater. The cast is, particularly in the two most central parts, excellent. The costuming and feel of the piece are right. But constant breaks in the pacing, caused by the need to move furniture between each one of the short vignette-like scenes, make it excruciatingly long. In the process, that elemental heat cools.
This is fixable, but it will take some creative restaging along the way. That would be wonderful, because rather than listening to an audience groan at the length, it would be terrific to be able to embrace this show for all the things it does right. They are many.
William Crisp makes a terrific Henry – playing the elaborate game of political competition with relish, bringing a consistency to this medieval king even as he is wound-able, strong, afraid of aging, and admiring of intellect equal to his own. Candy Beck tackles the prodigious Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, nemesis, equal, and prisoner let out for Christmas. In a subtle supporting role, and despite a somewhat questionable wig, Jamie Sowers proves on a par with these two powerful and powerfully played characters as the young Alais, sister to the King of France, raised at Henry’s court to be the next queen, yet become Henry’s mistress. Her subtle strength makes her less of a pawn than often played, leading to a particular inclusion in this fascinating trio.
The portraits of Henry’s three sons are a bit variable, though they power the piece when necessary. Colin McDowell’s Richard the Lionheart manages the mix of fragility and power necessary, but tends to deliver his lines in a comparatively hollow tone. Jonathan Tupanjanin makes Prince John just as much a spoiled child as is necessary. Thanks to one mention of his being pimply in the script, he has been given facial spots which look like large measles or major melanomas, and are very distracting. Acne is a bit more subtle, even onstage.
Brandon Ferruccio makes middle son Geoffrey as frankly devious as can be, becoming the most memorable of the sons. Despite another odd wig, Luke Miller makes the young king of France subtly mature and even more subtly as devious in his own way as Geoffrey. It’s an interesting take on the character.
Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are to be celebrated for finding costumes which truly fit the characters and the time period. Set designer Mark Frederickson has created the impression of a medieval castle, which sets the tone, but as used may also be creating much of the problem.
In the hands of director Lenore Stjerne, every scene is centrally staged, and uses the entire set. This means that between each scene lights dim, stagehands come out and move furniture, place or replace candles, hang tapestries, etc. – a project which can take 3 minutes or so. That’s too long, as pacing is key to effectiveness in this play. The use of “trucks,” which allow the quick wheeling in and out of setting pieces, or simply isolating some scenes in one part of the stage which is preset for the purpose, would solve this show’s one major problem and let people go home about a half hour earlier.
And that would be good, because this version of “The Lion in Winter” is definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances of the two leads. Hopefully the timing glitches will be solved by the start of the second weekend.
What: “The Lion in Winter” When: through November 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday November 16 Where: The Center Theater, Whittier Community Center, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org