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Lighthearted Farce Done Right: “Lend Me a Tenor” in La Mirada

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of "LEND ME A TENOR." [photo: Michael Lamont]

J. Paul Boehmer, Catherine LeFrere, Davis Gaines and John Shartzer star in the LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS/McCOY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT production of “LEND ME A TENOR.” [photo: Michael Lamont]

In the world of well-crafted farces, Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” has proven itself dependably clever in a variety of different settings. That is, when the cast is up to the rather specific demands of a tale about a regional opera company. Filled with classic slamming doors and mistaken identities, its sheer ridiculousness combined with its endearing characters makes it a deceptively easy hit.

Now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the McCoy Rigby Series there, a new production of this silly piece has all the required elements to make it a sure-fire hit, and the results don’t disappoint. Those who must sing really can. Those who must be over-the-top do so with delightful abandon. The look, and the timing, all enhance the whole.

In short, this “Tenor” sings like an angel.

The tale, as much as there is one, centers upon a two-room hotel suite in Cleveland in 1934. The Cleveland Opera has invited the great Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, to sing “Otello” in a one-night gala performance. When he doesn’t arrive on the expected train, panic ensues among those hovering around that room waiting for him. When he finally does show up, a series of missteps, mistakes, and eventually mistaken identities create complete pandemonium.

Director Art Manke has collected a remarkably able ensemble cast to make all of this work, and his combination of choreographed movement and pacing makes the entire thing come together just as it should.

Central to the piece is John Shartzer’s Max, the harried assistant to the company’s general manager upon whom all the pressure regarding Tito’s appearance lands. Shartzer creates in Max a wiry, anxious, and – in the end – surprisingly talented man, even in the midst of panic. As his charge, Davis Gaines makes Tito stereotypically emotional, yet with an underlying kindness which humanizes the stereotype. Both sing well, which cements a major element of the storyline.

J. Paul Boehmer gives the company’s general manager the appropriately officious combination of command and fatalism. Kelley Dorney, as Max’s starstruck fiancé, radiates an innocent sense of daring. Colette Kilroy gives the older chairman of the Opera Guild an endearing enthusiasm, while Leslie Stevens creates the aura of a budding diva as the soprano anxious to use her connection with Tito to further her career.

In somewhat smaller but no less polished performances, Catherine LeFrere has a field day with Tito’s wildly dramatic, fed-up wife, while Jeff Skowron proves consistently funny as an opera-obsessed bellhop who co-opts the role of room service waiter to snag Tito’s autograph.

The set, by Tom Buderwitz, is filled with a sense of period luxury. David Kay Mickelsen has created period costumes which evoke the era, and meet the rather circumspect needs of the McCoy Rigby audience for decorum in the play’s more sensual moments. Katie McCoy’s wigs are perfect for both time and character. In short, the visuals set the scene and allow certain outmoded elements necessary for the plot to appear historically appropriate.

This “Lend Me a Tenor” will allow for genuine and lighthearted laughter, and who couldn’t use a bit of silliness in this fractious time? Go and enjoy, and leave happily unencumbered by anything deeper than the requisite happy ending.

What: “Lend Me a Tenor” When: through November 13, 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 for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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“Dreamgirls” in La Mirada: Too Good Not to Perfect

Brittney Johnson, Moya Angela, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt as the reunited Dreams in "Dreamgirls" in La Mirada

Brittney Johnson, Moya Angela, Jasmin Richardson and Danielle Truitt as the reunited Dreams in “Dreamgirls” in La Mirada

From the moment that “Dreamgirls” first appeared on Broadway it was about two or three things at once. Most obviously it was an only partially disguised look at the story of The Supremes as they rose to fame and dissolved. More subtly, it was the story of payola and pandering to a “non-ethnic” audience as the highway to success for Black performers in the early 1960s.

But for many, it is all about the dynamism of whomever ends up playing Effie, the full-figured, full-voiced, difficult group member sacrificed on the altar of a white-approved success. First it was Jennifer Holiday, whose extraordinary voice created such a stir that many reviewers talked of little else. Then it was Jennifer Hudson, whose Oscar for playing Effie made her a household word even if she didn’t win “American Idol.”

This has done a disservice to the rest, to some extent. One powerful performance does not, under ordinary circumstances, a musical make. Now, at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, the McCoy Rigby production of “Dreamgirls” features Moya Angela in that most important role. Still, there is much else to praise, and a few things to caution about, as one looks at the production as a whole.

Most praiseworthy is an interesting, talented, and sizable cast. Jasmin Richardson and Brittney Johnson, as the other original members of The Dreams, manage to mature as the show moves along in ways both subtle and important. As she morphs into the featured soloist of the group, Richardson proves particularly striking in both her increased poise and her sense of her character’s awkwardness in the face of what that move does to Effie.

Angela makes the most of Effie. Throughout the show’s first half, detailing the group’s rise and Effie’s fall, she hits just the right note, climaxing in the physically powerful and emotionally taxing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The problem, in the second half, is that all conversational singing (as opposed to supposed recordings, or dialogue) is done at virtually the same volume as that iconic song – a volume which becomes unrelenting, particularly in a duet with Richardson which sounds like a shouting match even as it should be a more intimate moment of connection.

As for the men, John Devereaux makes sensitive work of Effie’s brother, the group’s songwriter, while Scott A. People gives just the right aura of cutthroat salesmanship to the man who manipulates their climb. David LaMarr creates one of the more complex characters as James “Thunder” Early, whose James Brown-like renditions are softened into a Johnny Mathis style he cannot maintain. His character, almost by accident, provides one of the piece’s issues: the men’s costumes.

Costume designer William Ivey Long gets the women just right, from their frumpier homemade start through the glittering evening gowns and such which define such a group in that era. Likewise, the back-up dancers – especially as The Dreams enter the disco era – fit right with the style of the times. But there are simple issues with the more subtle costumes of some of the men. People ends up in a suit with a sequined collar a promoter who never goes onstage, who is trying to bring class and “white culture” to his groups would never wear. In a critical sequence LaMarr is put in a (for him) dryly restrictive tuxedo, when lyrics just a few moments later talk about his being stuffed into a tail coat. These details may seem minor but point to a lack of attention.

Still, the overall concept of director Robert Longbottom is stunning. From the start, much of what has made “Dreamgirls” work has been the technical wizardry of sets which move quickly to create space after space for this very episodic tale. Scenic designer Robin Wagner does not disappoint, as – for once – electric screens dropped in and out of the stage space create appropriate rather than garish backgrounds for the widely shifting scenarios (concert stages, hotel rooms, backstage wings) in which the drama exists.

So, taken as a whole, this new “Dreamgirls” has a lot to recommend it. The voices are solid and strong, the story holds up well, and the visuals can be stunning. Now it’s time to fix the details so it can be as good as this show has proven it can be.

What: “Dreamgirls” When: Through April 17, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Two Decades Later, “Rent” Still Grabs You

"Rent" at La Mirada Theater [photo: Jason Niedle]

“Rent” at La Mirada Theater [photo: Jason Niedle]

Nearly 20 years ago, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” a raw, updated version of the tale of “La Boheme,” burst onto the scene in New York and came to define the entire ethos of the youthful artistic fringe of the age: battling regulation, battling personal demons, fighting for truth, expression and existence in the age of AIDS. The big question, when McCoy Rigby Entertainment in La Mirada chose to revive the piece was its relevance, almost two decades later. The answer is an almost surprise yes.

The story is that of the inhabitants of a former music publishing house, turned squatter’s heaven, in the East Village of New York City. They snake in electricity and scrounge for food, refuse to pay rent to a former fellow bohemian now married rich and become their landlord. They fight to preserve the homeless encampment next door. But most of all, they fight to find and celebrate their unique visions and to live into the moment. Indeed, as these young people celebrate life many also share a virus which, in their time and their income bracket, had a high likelihood of limiting their time on earth. Hence their mantra: “no day but today”.

The music has become iconic in its own right. From the joyous “La Vie Boheme” to the rich “Seasons of Love,” the intense and angry “Take Me or Leave Me” and the achingly sad “Without You”. Indeed, without singers who can handle this intense and often blockbuster score, the show cannot shine. Fortunately the entire cast – ensemble included – is well up to the task.

Standouts include Mark Whitten as the independent filmmaker, Mark, whose project to document a year in the life of his close-knit neighborhood becomes the foundation for the entire story. He makes Mark a mixture of joy and fatalism – just a bit goofy, with an elemental love for the people and the purpose of his part of the city. Devin Archer makes Mark’s former rock star roommate, Roger, fragile and damaged, but with a particular kind of resolute purpose. As Mimi, the heroine-addicted exotic dancer Roger falls for, Cassie Simone makes much of the pathos, the manipulativeness and the openness of a young girl trying to find her space in the world.

Also impressive are John Devereaux as Tom, the professor loving the free life of the Village, and Amber Mercomes as Joanne, the young lawyer trying to balance her powerful family and the love which has swept her into bohemia. Yet the two finest performances come from its two most colorful characters. Emily Goglia gives the activist performance artist Maureen the drive and the edginess to make the show’s send-up of performance art both very funny and very serious at the same time. As the deceptively strong drag queen Angel, Lawrence Cummings delivers a personality capable of such tenderness and understanding that one experiences his loss with a touch of the visceral, echoing the characters on stage.

Director Richard Israel keeps the show vital and intense, and gives each person – even those in the background – a sense of character and place. Though not usually one to compare a new production to the first one, I admit to missing one staging moment from that original version, which used the wistful “Without You” to examine the three central relationships – all in crisis – at the same time, next to each other on stage. Here the singers Roger and Mimi bring focus center stage, while the struggle of love and disease between Angel and Tom has been relegated to separateness and distance from the center, and Maureen and Joanne are not even present. This may be, to some extent, a result of Stephen Gifford’s many-leveled set design, but I still miss that sense of unity in disparity.

Choreographer Dana Solimando has the ability to create organized and visually satisfying chaos, and here that works just as it should. Musical Director John Glaudini has the songs crisp and vital, with some vocal licks from a couple of the ensemble members providing exclamation points in some of the best-known moments.

In short, “Rent” has made it to our time with a lot of the shine still on. When you consider that its statement about art and living for the moment goes right back to an opera premiered in the late 1800s, still valid when “Rent” came along about 100 years later, why would another 20 years make that much difference? The story is not about the disease which chases them. It’s not about the squalor in which they live, or the life choices they have made. It is, rather, about the sense of love and community which makes this all work. And finding community, as well as fighting for art, are themes which transcend time.

What: “Rent” When: Through November 15, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

A Pleasant “First Date” takes on La Mirada

The cast of "First Date - A Musical Comedy" in La Mirada [photo: Jason Niedle]

The cast of “First Date – A Musical Comedy” in La Mirada [photo: Jason Niedle]

There are many different reasons a theatrical musical can work. It can be a window on a piece of history, a great work of literature, or an important social issue. It can swell the heart with timeless romance, or charm with silliness and tap dancing. Then again, maybe it’s evocative of those awkward, or funny, or engaging moments most of us can resonate with, and so it’s a lovely, light-hearted way to spend an evening.

This would be what Alan Zachary, Michael Weiner, and Austin Winsberg’s “First Date” has to offer. As it takes a “millennial” couple through their blind date, it evokes all the nerves, uncertainties, self-deprecations, and random thoughts such a stressful event can create. Now a part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, the fresh little musical gets a boisterously attractive treatment. This is not a musical you will leave with your mind resting on its epic intensity, but the very humanity of two people working their way through a familiar situation will let you leave with a smile.

Essentially, this is the story of the first date between Aaron and Casey. As they meet at a trendy restaurant, their external exchanges are matched by the internal dialogue played out, thanks to an amazingly versatile cast, by all the other voices they carry in their heads. The internal and external comedy leads to considerable laughter, occasional pathos, and a nonstop velocity. Due to this last, it makes perfect sense the show would be performed without intermission. This is a flow one would hate to break.

Marc Ginsburg is Aaron, a man coming back to the dating world after being left at the altar by his ex-fiance. As he unwinds this, the lure of his original attachment to the lover who jilted him plays like a background hum, as does the lasciviousness of his “player” best friend. Ginsurg manages the fine balance between vulnerability and simple fear of the unknown and the determination to move on with a fine hand. As the comparatively unconventional Casey, Erica Lustig walks between the character’s judgmental, sometimes angry self-protection and her genuine curiosity, as her sister’s resented voice of convention and her gay friend’s earnest voice of rescue echo in her head.

Justin Michael Wilcox, Leigh Wakeford, Scott Dreier, Stacey Oristano and Kelley Dorney morph from bar patrons into these many voices with a seamlessness which speaks to the near-choreographic use of the stage by director Nick Degruccio. Aided by the momentum of Lee Martino’s fast-paced actual choreography, the show is filled with movement which keeps what is essentially an extensive conversation from becoming static and lifeless. It is a clever use of all of what live theater has to offer in the way of storytelling immediacy.

And the individual characters created by the “voices” are worth special recognition, as they play everything from old sweethearts to pushy family to even the various advantages of differing social media in discovering the most embarrassing
moments in a new date’s previous life. The songs are fun, and push the story into interestingly introspective places, then out again into the sheer silliness of trying to assess a possible partner over dinner.

One caveat: understand this is about dating in the current day. References (at the very least in their heads) to the sexual nature of relationship are definitely there, and the language can get rather scatological. However, this proves organic to the characters and situation, and adds rather than detracts from the humor of the piece.

“First Date” is not – as written – great art, but it is most certainly a lot of fun. And as presented in La Mirada, has a charm and energy which makes it seem much shorter than it is, and leaves you wanting to follow the characters into the next phase of whatever comes after.

What: “First Date” When: through October 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 for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Magical, Lighter “Mary Poppins” Graces La Mirada

It's a jolly holiday with Mary Poppins and crew at La Mirada Theatre [photo: Michael Lamont]

It’s a jolly holiday with Mary Poppins and crew at La Mirada Theatre [photo: Michael Lamont]

When the national tour of Disney’s “Mary Poppins: The Musical” came to the Ahmanson Theatre, it did so with the original choreography which, though award-winning, was also disturbing enough to have the producer urge parents not to bring children under a certain age. This seemed sad to me, as the film this musical was based on had been a highlight of my own childhood. Much though I have appreciated Matthew Bourne’s unique talent as a choreographer (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Swan Lake”, “Cinderella”), I felt that the resulting creepiness was a disservice to the spirit, if not really of the original P.L. Travers books, then at least to the spirit which pervaded the movie.

What a delight, then to see the musical reimagined through the McCoy Rigby series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Using new choreography by the late, much-mourned Dan Mojica, the musical takes on a cheery edge reminiscent of other Disney musicals, and more in keeping with what one expects from the version of “Mary Poppins” most Americans know. With a very talented cast, this newer and more lighthearted dancing, and all the charm of that wistfully nostalgic story, this show is a bonafide hit.

The story is a classic. The household of Mr. George Banks cannot keep a nanny, as his two smart and rascally children drive them away. The father is brusque, the mother feels inadequate, the cook fumes with frustration and the serving man alternates between dim and terrified. Then, based on an advertisement the children write, a tough but fantastical woman takes over the nursery and introduces the children to ethics and empathy and the delight of imagination. It changes everyone.

Brandi Burkhardt makes a cheerfully direct Mary, and sings and dances with style. Leigh Wakeford’s Bert radiates energy, charm and a particular form of star quality, and dances with an almost ferocious energy and precision. Shannon Warne gives Mrs. Banks a sweetness and an underlying sadness which balances well against the brusk aspects of Martin Kildare’s Mr. Banks. Noa Solorio and Logan J. Watts give the Banks children the right balance of mischief and wonder, and in a brief appearance Helen Geller underscores the wistfulness of the song she sings as the ancient Bird Woman.

Yet, this is truly an ensemble work, and the multi-talented ensemble ends up the star. From the park sequences to the ubiquitous dancing chimney sweeps, they provide individual and group work which takes this show from cute and clever to a performing tour-de-force. And this is no surprise, as the dancing is a tribute to their choreographer, who passed away far too young just weeks before the show was to open.

And, indeed, his vision and the vision of director Glenn Casale have done what was needed to bring the charm and warmth of “Mary Poppins” to a new generation. Kudos must also go to J. Branson’s scenic designs, which have a magic all their own.

So, go see “Mary Poppins” for any number of reasons. It’s fun. It’s extremely well done. It has an interesting mix of the songs you may remember and newer, but elemental ones. It isn’t wildly intellectual, though it has something to say both about making ethical choices and about understanding why people are as they are. Still, it’s a great way to spend a cheerful time. And bring the kids. Unlike last time this show hit town, bring the kids. After all, everyone needs a little touch of magic now and then.

What: “Mary Poppins” When: Through June 21, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with additional performances 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 16 and 7 p.m. Sunday evenings June 14 and 21 Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Good People” in La Mirada – 21st Century Class Consciousness

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in "Good People" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in “Good People” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Long ago, my sociology professor made much of the fact that there were not specific social classes in the United States: that, like the Horatio Alger model, everyone had the ability to rise. This has become more and more debatable in the last half-century, as social forces clamp some into specific spaces in our national culture , not all of which are related to race.

In illustration, find the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Good People,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s examination of class and culture in Boston, now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Lindsay-Abaire, whose powerful examination of the nature and collateral damage of grief, “Rabbit Hole,” was a signature piece of last year’s MRE season, looks at the issue through the lens of a “Southie” – someone from traditionally blue collar, Irish, South Boston.

Margaret is a middle aged Southie at the end of her rope. Having just lost her most recent job, in part due to her struggles to care for her disabled adult daughter, she’s desperate for work. Her lifelong friend bumps into an old classmate, briefly Margaret’s love interest, who escaped the life of South Boston for a career as a doctor. Margaret decides to push him to lift her up, at least as far as giving her a job.

Has he become a “lace curtain Southie,” thinking he’s better than everyone else? Is her anger toward him justified? Is the lifestyle he now lives the dream Margaret thinks it is, or does class create struggle even there? What, in the end, are these characters’ actual truths, as the two possible endings for a Southie kid come face to face.

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol creates a distinctly edgy, biting quality to the desperate Margaret: quick to assume, aggressively judgemental and painfully honest, yet gifted by a sense of community on her home turf. As her buddy Jean, Gigi Bermingham offers up the same cynically humorous view of their individual desperations, while Anne Gee Byrd makes Margaret’s upstairs landlady obstinately practical, but caring in her own distant way.

As Mike, the doctor, Martin Kildare gives subtlety to the divide of sensitivities inside a successful man with Southie roots. Sophina Brown, as his wife, offers the third element: a woman raised with greater sophistication, whose struggles to connect her husband’s present image with his past may loom as large as Margaret’s.

Though not touted as a comedy, “Good People” has many laughs in the midst of these tensions. The title of this play comes from the phrase, “He (or she) is good people” – an important valuation in South Boston.The rest of the play is, in the end, an examination of what it means to be, or not be, good people – a goodness which resides in there somewhere, apparently particularly among people in extremity.

Though not as compelling as “Rabbit Hole,” as a play, the performances make the thing worth watching, as does director Jeff Maynard’s handling of this episodic tale. He smooths the transitions from place to place, and makes great use of Stephen Gifford’s representational set pieces. Adriana Lambarri’s costumes create instant class separations, and underscore the central themes of the piece.

For us west-coasters, who may have only heard of Southies in relation to the more local arrest of Whitey Bulger, it’s a look at a part of the country where the turf wars are more distinct, and more ingrained in social history. It’s also a good examination of why, at least in certain parts of the country, my sociology professor was probably wrong.

What: “Good People” When: Through October 12, 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 for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Les Miz” Rises: Great musical done right in La Mirada

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of "Les  Miserables" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

The Company of the McCoy/Rigby Entertainment production of “Les Miserables” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

If I had to make a list of the most fulfilling stage musicals I have ever seen, “Les Miserables” would be up there in the top five. In live performance, it offers a significant combination of strong story (well edited from another medium though it may be), strikingly memorable music, lushness, message, and star turns. When I first saw it in its original London production, one of the things which also struck me was the comparative simplicity of the performance format: tech did not outweigh content. At the time, when musical theater was full of roller skates and falling chandeliers, the production of “Les Miz” was comparatively simple – occasionally stunningly so.

Which is part of what upset me about the 25th anniversary revival tour, when it arrived at the Ahmanson. Though I am never one to insist that any theatrical work be chained to its original staging, the new rendition went higher tech, taking it a direction which, in several critical moments, picked spectacle over substance. And the performers knew it. The heart was drained from the entire proceeding.

All of this brings me to the relief I felt seeing the new rendition by the McCoy Rigby Entertainment series at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. It’s like the show has its mojo back: strong performances, tight pacing, and a more performer-centric production. It works. It works the way it always does when it is done right: the cast has chemistry, the story has power, and the audience is swept up in the sheer melodramatic richness of it all.

A strong ensemble powers the piece, creating space for some fine performances. James Barbour brings to Jean Valjean just the right measure of fear, anger and deeply loving regret. His voice handles the extreme range of music with a naturalness which belies its difficulty. Randall Dodge’s Javert vibrates with moral conviction without becoming a complete cartoon. In the brief but powerful part of Fantine, Cassandra Murphy balances desperation and heart-wrenching despair with grace, while Michael Stone Forrest becomes memorable in the even more brief but pivotal role of the Bishop of Digne.

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Randall Dodge as Javert and James Barbour as Jean Valjean [photo: Michael Lamont]

Kimberly Hessler and Nathan Irvin make a splendid couple as the young and idealistic lovers Cosette and Marius, while Jeff Skowron and particularly Meeghan Holaway have delightful fun as the blatantly evil Thenardiers. Young Jude Mason makes a plucky little Gavroche, and sings with intensity and clarity beyond his apparent years. Anthony Fedorov looks scrappier than is sometimes portrayed, but still lights the egalitarian fires as the passionate student Enjolras. Valerie Rose Curiel’s voice has a slight pop overtone which sometimes seems inappropriate, but she gives the ill-fated Eponine considerable character.

Still, it is by looking at the production as a whole that one finds the most satisfaction. For me, the “tell” as to whether or not the words and story matter most is the death of Javert. This production returns to the simple, stylish, understated concept from the first production – a confirming moment which, I will admit, produced a fist-pump from me: if they got that, they got the whole balance right.

Kudos, thus, to director Brian Kite who took the best of the old and worked with it to make it new. Choreographer Dana Solimando, often in this production more of a movement coordinator, gives the piece visual style. Praise also to set designer Cliff Simon and lighting designer Steven Young. If there was an Achilles heel in this performance it came at the hands of the microphones which had a tendency to blank out at critical moments. I’m sure sound designer Josh Bessom has been on that ever since.

So, if you haven’t ever seen “Les Miserables” done on stage, this is a fine version to check out. If you have, this one will not disappoint. One can only hope that those in the future who wish to keep this remarkable musical alive will learn from the errors of their forebears that when the material is this good, quite often the “less is more” rule definitely applies.

What: “Les Miserables” When: Through June 22, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

What a Difference a Cast Makes: “God of Carnage” in La Mirada

Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of "God of Carnage  [photo: Michael Lamont]

Jamison Jones, Amy Sloan, Maura Vincent and Hugo Armstrong in McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “God of Carnage [photo: Michael Lamont]

One of the terrific things about live theater is its combination of a potentially unchanging script and the amazingly different interpretations which can be brought to that script. So much depends on which performers are engaged with it, and what the director of a particular production envisions as the show’s purpose. Thus, in the case of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” one can end up with two very different aftertastes, depending on which version of the same script you have seen.

I will admit that, upon seeing the original Broadway cast reunite to do this piece at the Ahmanson in 2011, I was unimpressed. The vitriol was so vicious, the edge so grim that – though it may have accurately underscored the essentially animalian quality lying just beneath modern white middle class “civilized behavior” – it was not, as advertised, funny. On the other hand, in the new McCoy Rigby Entertainment production at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, it is very humorous indeed. It’s all in how it is played. So, now I get it.

The tale begins as a result of a confrontation in a local public park, where one little boy has attacked another. Now the parents of the boy who was the apparent attacker have come to the home of the parents of the other boy to discuss what to do from this point forward. What begins as an awkward but well-meaning discussion quickly devolves into the dysfunctionalities which power each couple’s lives. A send-up of successful middle class elitism and innate one-upsmanship, it ends with all parties looking ridiculous. This is as it should be. Getting there is occasionally startling, a bit gross, and painfully laugh-filled.

Hugo Armstrong creates in Michael, the man in whose living room the action takes place, a classic, old-fashioned “guy.” With a hardware business and a love of sports, he becomes the stereotypical sympathetic, meat-and-potatoes man trying to find his place in the forced pacifism and faux intellectualism of suburban society. As his wife, Maura Vincent gives Veronica a mild OCD to enhance her ostensible fascination with art and social issues. This is a woman who controls. The friction of contrasting energies hums mildly even as the play begins.

In Alan, the preoccupied and disinterested father of the aggressive boy, Jamison Jones drips with disdain for pacifism, even ethical responsibility, thwarting the civilized intents of everyone else in the room. With body language alone, he often rules this piece as either the active irritant or the overtly detached distraction. Amy Sloan handles the job of the businesslike Annette, mortified at her son’s behavior and her husband’s disengagement. In Sloan’s hands, she becomes the pot ready to boil over, and when she does – both literally and figuratively – it comes as much as a product of an internal wrestle as from external forces, making the results much more humorous.

Indeed, in the hands of director Michael Arabian, all is played with just enough underlying camp to keep the ugliness of their confrontations from simply being disquieting and grim. Likewise, his choreography keeps the players moving from corner to corner, engaging and disengaging as the conversation unravels.

One again, John Iacovelli has created a set which neatly places the characters in time and place. Christopher Hamilton’s splendid translation of Reza’s French script seats the piece elegantly in America – something which is a statement of universality in itself.

“God of Carnage” really is as much fun as it was originally painted. That it took a cast other than the one who had played it for a great length of time says much about interpretation and vision, and perhaps something about what happens when performers encounter a part anew – before it becomes old hat. In any case, it’s a lesson in what makes theater such a living, breathing animal.

What: “God of Carnage” When: Through February16, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $60 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Personal and Powerful: “Rabbit Hole” finishes a run at La Mirada Theatre

Loss hits each person differently, yet there are similarities which bind all of humanity together at such times. Even those who consider themselves straightforward, logical people can be so thrown by tragedy that the universe must shatter – at least for a while – and then rearrange itself into a new pattern of living. To bring this onto a public stage without turning it into a cliche or a Lifetime movie proves the greatest challenge, but one playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has overcome.

Which is why “Rabbit Hole”, now finishing a run as part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada Theatre, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize: it approaches the universal qualities of personal grief in an understated, and thus far more realistic way than most dramas, and also offers a keen portrait of a couple whose individual heartaches are balanced by an underlying, tenacious, mutual bond.

Becca and Howie, a fairly typical middle-class couple, wrestle daily with the aftermath of the accidental death of their 4-year-old son, who chased his dog into the path of an oncoming car. Their normalcy has edges, into which bump Becca’s flighty, irresponsible, and now pregnant younger sister, and her wry, quirky but observant mother. The strains between all of these people are evident, as they bounce off each other and wrestle with the process of moving forward. Yet, the connections seem to hold.

Deborah Puette is Becca, maintaining a stiff, almost obsessive normalcy amidst an increasing internal isolation. Michael Polak’s Howie moves between supportiveness and anger – some of it misplaced, but all of it sincere. Kristina Johnson gives Becca’s sister the oblivious and self-absorbed qualities which make her both an active irritant and a casual observer.

Lori Larsen’s entertainingly straightforward turn as Becca’s mother adds a certain kind of wisdom and patience into the entire environment. In a short, but important turn, Seamus Mulcahy creates a disarmingly innocent immaturity as the sincere teen who was driving on that fateful day.

All of this has been pulled into a natural, flowing cohesion by director Michael Matthews, who takes what is essentially a very episodic tale, and aided by Stephen Gifford’s modular, open set, turns it into a single story. And believe it or not, that story ends up not in grim detachment but in what actually happens, usually, in cases like this: the eventual movement back into life – peace, if not yet joy.

“Rabbit Hole” is funny, wrenching, sad and hopeful by turns. It holds a mirror up to relationship under stress, and a particularly intense aspect of the human condition in a way which is human, warm, and filled with connection. It is most certainly worth taking the time to take in.

What: “Rabbit Hole” When: Through November 17, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (526) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Broadway Bound” – classic family dysfunction in La Mirada

The cast of La Mirada's "Broadway Bound"

The cast of La Mirada’s “Broadway Bound”

Considered the most famous living playwright in America, Neil Simon’s reputation was already assured when he began his semi-autobiographical trilogy in the early 1980s. Though it had been there before, this trilogy significantly changed public perception about Simon. His wry and self-deprecating humor was also acknowledged for depth – for using that humor to touch on the most sensitive aspects of people’s imperfect lives.

The last of the three, “Broadway Bound,” now in a polished revival by the McCoy Rigby series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, provides a fine illustration of this aspect of Simon’s work. The play touches heavily on aging, loss and the aches left behind when ambition, inflexibility, dysfunction and simply the passage of time disrupt the traditional family. Yet, all is done with a humor which often offers laughs as antidote to moments which would otherwise be tragic.

At La Mirada, a solid, comic, articulate cast directed with precision and intelligence keeps the story humming along, allowing the humor and potential tragedy to mix in ways which charm as they teach. The play is a series of portraits, and under the carefully choreographed direction of Jeff Maynard, an exemplary cast pretty much takes that task to heart.

The story holds echos of Simon’s own beginnings as a writer. Eugene, the narrator, lives at home but aspires to become a comic writer. His older brother and co-writer Stanley lands them their first gig. They face the dual struggles of coming up with material and living in a home full of people seemingly devoid of humor. And, just as they push for a success which will allow them to move out of the home they grew up in and into independence, their family is fracturing beneath them.

Eugene and Stanley struggle with a joke

Eugene and Stanley struggle with a joke


Ian Alda is Eugene, the burgeoning young writer, and the voice of Simon’s own wit. As such he must balance that element of observational humor with the immediacy of his character’s involvement in the storyline – a feat he manages with an almost casual seamlessness. As Stanley, Brett Ryback provides the almost frenzied ambition and creative anxiety against which Eugene’s own creativity blends or bumps. He must always vibrate with urgency, and Ryback makes that both believable and highly entertaining. Cate Cohen does what she can with her brief appearance as the comparatively two-dimensional aunt, whose second marriage to a wealthy man has left her happy, but a political anathema to her own father.

Yet, in truth, what makes this production are the character parts. Allan Miller’s grumpy socialist grandfather proves very funny, yet also unforgettable – a man achingly resolute, with an undercurrent of warmth which leaves him yearning for an affection he cannot bear to accept. Gina Hecht, as the dulled, long-suffering mother proves a wonder, particularly as she balances the tones of her current routine with the airy look back at her younger self. John Mariano’s version of the philandering father – part battle-weary trudger and part desperately wise – brings to him a sympathy not always readily present in productions of this play.

Bruce Goodrich’s set allows the entire house to be present at all times, bringing a seamless quality to this somewhat episodic story. Ann Closs-Farley’s costuming places the characters securely in their 1949 setting. Indeed, all the details blend into a must enjoyable whole.

So, go, but do not expect the tidy comedies of Simon’s early years. “Broadway Bound”, like it’s two brothers, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues” tell a very genuine tale of family, coming of age, comings apart, and foundations. That Simon makes you laugh as he tells it keeps the grimness at bay at times, but also underscores a certain survival skill which allows the Eugenes of this world to move up and out from difficult beginnings. Most importantly, in this production especially, you simply like all the people, even when they don’t particularly like each other. That is another aspect of classic, important Neil Simon repertoire.

What: “Broadway Bound” When: Through October 13, 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 for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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