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Ode to Fandom: “Always, Patsy Cline” in Sierra Madre

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D'Amico as Louise Seger in

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D’Amico as Louise Seger in “Always, Patsy Cline” [photo: Gina Long]

This show has been extended through September 13.

Revision: This show has now been extended through September 27.

Another Revision: This show, which is apparently completely unstoppable, is now extended through October 30.

In the world of local theater, there are two different kinds of musical productions commonly available. One is what is thought of as the “standard American musical,” with a story line enhanced with songs and dances – usually ones which advance the storyline and may be integral to the plot. The other is the “tribute concert,” a chance to recreate a musical group, performer or even revisit a particular performer’s music in such a way that folks can come to the theater to hear either a reenactment of a period concert performance (see “Beatlemania” as foundational in that genre), or come to a celebration of a performer’s music by obviously more contemporary performers, such as when a group of tuxedoed gentlemen take turns singing songs connected to, say, Frank Sinatra .

However, there is a third category I tend to refer to as the bio-tribute: it ostensibly tells some tale related to a famed musician, but is actually mostly a chance to hear lots of that performer’s songs. Among these, the most amorphous is “Always, Patsy Cline,” a show based on a true story, written by Ted Swindley. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, it offers two performers a chance to play both sides of the tribute coin: one, who narrates, offers up an entertaining portrait of one die-hard fan’s encounter with her idol. The other plays the songstress herself, and sings the songs Cline was famed for, both in recreated concert settings, and as Cline’s side of conversations with the fan who idolized her.

The best news in the SMP production has to be the performers themselves. Nikki D’Amico proves a hoot as Louise, the wildly enthusiastic, uninhibited Texan whose wholehearted enthusiasm leads an exhausted Cline to come home with her after a concert gig, igniting a friendship which lasted until Cline’s untimely death in early 1963. Cori Cable Kidder has Cline’s particular vocal styling down fairly well, and thanks to Krys Fehervari’s impressively accurate wigs, looks the part. It’s a carefully underplayed portrait but it works after a fashion, though sometimes it seems that this Patsy Cline is being overwhelmed by Louise’s sheer energy.

Director Robert Marra has given the potentially static piece as much action as he can, in large part by giving D’Amico’s Louise a brash physicality – even during many of Cline’s songs – which keeps the visual energy strong. Musical director Sean Paxton has assembled a live band to back up Kidder’s vocals, and with the possible exception of the opening night fiddler, their polish helps create the essential “country” sounds of the various stages of Cline’s career.

Also worthy of note is John Vertrees’ impressively expansive-looking country barn, plus separate late-50s kitchen, set on SMP’s tiny stage. A. Jeffery Schoenberg does right by Cline’s wardrobe too – a woman making waves in country music who, early on, eschewed the usual gingham and fringe for sheath dresses and gold lame pants.

As a script, “Always, Patsy Cline” seems neither fish nor fowl, but that’s not this production’s fault. For those who just want to sit back and listen to Cline sing her songs, the enthusiastic Louise seems a distraction. For those who want to know more about this particular, factually based relationship between Cline and her most ardent fan, the comparative lack of spoken lines by the legendary singer (who was reportedly quite a lively friend) leaves the tale significantly one-sided. Still, the end result becomes a walk down memory lane for some, and an amusing snapshot of an era and a charmingly pushy fan for others. And, of course, there are those songs, and, truth be told, even this child of the rock era can listen to “I Fall to Pieces” or “Crazy” or “Walkin’ After Midnight” any old time.

What: “Always, Patsy Cline” When: Through September 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. all Sundays and Saturday, September 12. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Moliere At His Best: A Noise Within charms with “The Bungler”

JD Cullum as the devious Mascarille and Michael A. Newcomber as the inept Lelie with the cast of "The Bungler" (photo: Craig Swartz)

Few men have had their finger on the pulse of their own time period like Moliere. He made social comedy into an art form, managing to touch on class issues of his own day while creating characters whose foibles prove so human they are still very accessible today. Still, some of Moliere’s comedies are produced more often than others. There is a particular excitement for those who, like me, have experienced multiple productions of “Tartuffe,” “The Imaginary Invalid,” or “The Misanthrope” to discover there may still be a surprise – an unknown treasure to be unearthed on occasion.

Indeed, I have just found one. After seeing “The Bungler” at A Noise Within, I cannot help wonder why it is not one of the more commonly done of Moliere’s work. Graced with comic plot worthy of Abbott and Costello, the silly elegance of an overdressed era, and that universal sympathy for a cheerful scoundrel, it charms from beginning to end, with more than a few genuine belly laughs along the way.

Much of this is due, of course, to the stellar performances of two individuals. JD Cullum engages at every level as the frustrated valet Mascarille. Wily and devious, Mascarille has been pushed by his master, Lelie, to maneuver the beautiful gypsy woman held in bondage by a neighbor into Lelie’s arms. It would seem a rather standard sort of “cunning servant” play. The difference here is Lelie, played as unflappably vapid by Michael A. Newcomer. Trying to be helpful, Lelie manages to thwart his own interests over and over again, pushing Mascarille into ever more outlandish attempts to achieve his goal.

Both Cullum and Newcomer are brilliant – the one radiating energetic intelligence balanced beautifully the other’s blank-but-earnest placidity. Supporting them is an equally impressive cast.

William Dennis Hunt grounds the story as the penurious owner of Lelie’s obsession. As the obsession, Emily Kosloski provides the kind of porcelain beauty one usually finds on Dresden shepherdesses, and most of what she gets to do is be beautiful. Kate Maher, as the woman Lelie is supposed to marry, settles into an interesting air increasing practicality as the insanity around her becomes more and more transparent, rather than just playing a pawn. Stephen Rockwell makes somewhat bemused work of her father.

Mitchell Edmonds operates with a pleasant cluelessness as Lelie’s somewhat impoverished, but cheerful father. Kevin Stidham’s standard young man makes an attractive alternative for Lelie’s fiance. Rafael Goldstein proves earnestly confidential as Mascarille’s informative friend, and Amin El Gamal radiates a kind of creepy warmth as the mysterious Andres. Kabin Thomas and Claire Marie Mannle round out the cast.

Director, and ANW Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliot has chosen to weave this baroque comedy with aspects of commedia dell’arte, utilizing the masks, music and dance as segues for and punctuation to the production. This general concept of a play within a play makes the thing flow with a lighthearted ease, with just a little aura of the sinister. It all works.

“The Bungler,” in the end, is far from a bungle. It is laugh-out-loud funny, as much due to direction and quality of acting as to Moliere. To be surprised by something around since the time of Louis XIV has its own enjoyment, and is in its way the best proof of the essential artistry of theater, even comic theater, to speak to the human condition. Go if you can. You’ll be glad you did.

What: “The Bungler” When: Through May 27 in repertory with two other plays, 8 p.m. selected Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

Is it all a dream? A Noise Within’s “The Illusion” makes the mystical amusing

Deborah Strang, as the sorceress, and Jeff Doba as her longsuffering servant, find much to laugh about as they create "The Illusion" at A Noise Within

Its beginnings have a familiar flavor. A man who long ago tossed his son out as a wastrel has a change of heart, and reaches out for help in finding the boy again. Pierre Corneille’s 17th Century mystical tragi-comedy “The Illusion” takes this essential premise and creates from it humor and intrigue and mysticism enough to keep an audience riveted. Translated by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, it ends up with a balance of contemporary wit and classic suspension of disbelief which prove compelling watching.

That is, if one is watching the production of this delight at A Noise Within. The odd tale comes alive because of terrific performances, and because of the whimsical direction of Casey Stangl. The result is a triumph of almost attractive weirdness, consistent humor and whipcrack timing.

Pridamant seeks advice from the sorceress Alcandre in order to find his son. She, assisted by an occasionally speechless or deaf slave named Amanuensis, show Pridamant scenes from his son’s life since his disappearance. Throughout, though he often changes his name, a beautiful woman, a scheming servant girl and a noble opponent reappear in each setting, spurring as many questions as answers – questions which cannot be explained completely until the visions are complete.

Kushner has given this weird tale a tone which diffuses the antiquity of the play itself. The rest is the artistry of the production. Nick Ullett makes Pridamant’s stuffy and judgmental evaluations of his son’s life, and suspicion of the very sorcery he has sought out, funny and recognizable. Deborah Strang gives the sorceress a wry, practical sense which makes her very mysticism more of a science than a dark art. Jeff Doba’s sometimes stoic, sometimes very funny manservant brings all the mystery down to earth.

Graham Hamilton cuts a handsome and romantic figure as Pridamant’s absent son. Devon Sorvari makes a lovely object of his affections. Freddy Douglas gives his rival a snobby authority, while Abby Craden’s wily servant girl often seems to take charge, as she sounds the voice of reason in the many hyper-romantic situations Pridamant is allowed to see. Alan Blumenfeld has a lovely time as the bombastic, ineffective windbag, Matamore.

All of these scenes take place in Keith Mitchell’s mystical cave of a set, where Jeremy Pivnick’s clever lighting moves us from a dank hideaway to the sites of the son’s adventures with the kind of ease only available in the theater. Julie Keen’s evocative costumes (Alcandre’s is especially good – fascinatingly off kilter) set the tone both of mystery and normalcy. The sum total is an evening of lighthearted fun, with a highly entertaining surprise at story’s end.

“The Illusion” is a unique gift in a theater which concentrates on classic material, in that it feels new, both because of the language of the translation and because it is simply not well known. Corneille is far from an undiscovered playwright, but his works have not had the continuous presence in the canon that Moliere, Voltaire or – obviously – Shakespeare and his ilk have enjoyed. One is therefore able to have the delight of surprise, rather than simply the evaluation of a new rendition of something well known. And this is, indeed, a gentle delight.

What: “The Illusion” When: Through May 19 in repertory with two other plays, 8 p.m. selected Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. selected Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinees on some Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

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