Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Larry Carpenter

“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

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Witches Rule the Dark in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth”

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated "MacBeth" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated “MacBeth” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Like any big Shakespeare fan, I collect productions of “MacBeth.” This dark and cynical tale contains some of the Bard’s finest language, and its focus on the rapidity with which ambition can overtake ethics certainly resonates in our modern world. Besides, its mystical aspects provide a rich canvas for a good director. What form shall the witches take? How shall the superstitions inherent in the piece be incorporated into the larger play?

Now, at A Noise Within in Pasadena, director Larry Carpenter has set his play in no time and every time, where swords occasionally compete with pistols and modern military garb blends with 15th century armor. In the midst of it all, three amorphous characters take on most of the “minor” roles – servants, doctors, murderers – when not embodying the witches who spark the madness. It’s great entertainment, with its aura of doom and its constant physical engagement with the audience. Even some of those scenes which often become awkward have a consistency of vision which pull them into the spookiness of the whole.

Elijah Alexander is MacBeth, making him a likable man, but a man of physicality – easily manipulated by desires, whether for his honor, his wife, or power – not a man to ruminate on consequences before it is too late. Jules Willcox steams as his lady, radiating a passion which moves MacBeth to murder, yet is not going to be able to control the resulting whirlwind which puts him largely beyond her reach. As these two collide with and repel each other, the rest of a strong cast rounds out the story of their whirlwind.

Matt Orduna’s solidly noble Duncan plays well against MacBeth’s lighter-weight sensibility. Leith Burke’s Banquo becomes the image of the stalwart, if admittedly somewhat ambitious friend, until he is undone. David DeSantos’s resolute, wise MacDuff, gradually working to right the ship of Scotland, echoes Duncan’s nobility and intelligence. Feodor Chin, as that odd combination of wisdom and changeable nature, Duncan’s son Malcolm, makes his vagaries almost make sense. Katie Pelensky and Theo Taplitz, as MacDuff’s doomed wife and son, create a moment of light and home in the midst of the terror.

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within's "MacBeth" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Still, it is the witches who give the play its focus and fascination. Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb create the rich foreboding and mystery which elevates this production, not only in their initial roles but as many other smaller elements – a necessity when spreading 28 major and minor characters among a cast of 17. They also effectively underscore how central the idea of the evil is to everything in MacBeth’s life, as, for example, they enhance the often badly handled “dagger I see before me” speech in a way both literal and spooky. Standout in all of this is El Gamal’s truly creepy androgynous servant, who can make one’s skin crawl as a complicit voice of doom.

Carpenter’s use of ghosts – not just that of Banquo, but the gradually swelling host of MacBeth’s silent, observing victims – emphasizes the sense of doom, and underscores the madness of the storyline. It’s a great concept.

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Their otherworldliness as witches is aided by Sean T Cawelti’s fascinatingly simple, yet creepy bits of puppetry. Susan Gratch’s facile platform of a set and evocative lighting set the tone of dark portents. Jenny Foldenouer’s fanciful costuming allows both the swift-change aspects of the witch characters and the quick definition of everyone else.

In short, from the consistency of tone to the layered portraits to the clever and facile use of witches, this “MacBeth” is a treat. By paring down the often overwhelming volume of persons onstage, the central characters stand out more brightly, and the point is more effectively made. In short, it’s a finely crafted production worthy of sold-out audiences, and a true pleasure for a longtime Shakespeare aficionado such as myself.

What: “MacBeth” When: in repertory, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 22, 8 p.m. April 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 12, 7:30 p.m. April 24, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. April 27, 2 p.m and 8 p.m. May 3, 7:30 p.m. May 8, 8 p.m. May 9, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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