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Powerful “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Photo by Nick Agro / Pasadena Playhouse

The cast of “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse: a smaller ensemble proves mighty where it counts.

[This show has now been extended through March 9.]

One of the first things that resonates from the new production of the musical “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse is its timeliness. Nevermind that it is set in roughly 1900, that it is based on a 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, or that the musical had its American premiere here in Los Angeles in 1997. The topics of the book, and of the musical – the complacency of the rich, the struggles of the immigrant, and an income and justice system rigged against African Americans – are as clearly resonant today as perhaps at any time in-between.

Newly reimagined by director David Lee, the Playhouse production has been paired down to its essentials in ways which may not allow for the roar of a crowd, but create an intimate connection with the central characters that carries the story. Set in New York and peppered with that period’s famous individuals, it boils down to the story of a well-off white family from New Rochelle whose comfortable life is contrasted with, and eventually collides with other elements of the times. These include a desperate immigrant artist and his young daughter whose dreams of American prosperity come up against the harsh realities of the East Side slums, and a Harlem romance that goes sideways in the face of overt racial hatred.

The cast forms a fluid ensemble as characters rise who, one after another, form more than usually powerful connections with the audience. Standouts include Clifton Duncan in the wrenching part of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a man whose dreams dissolve in the brutality of racial divide. Marc Ginsburg manages the hope and the desperation of Tateh, the Eastern European immigrant unprepared for the reality of America.

Bryce Charles as the innocent young woman Walker woos, and Valerie Perri as the revolutionary Emma Goldman also shine, while Shannon Warne, as the white, well cared-for Mother in New Rochelle offers up a subtlety of emotional shift which, though not as dynamic as some of the others, creates a unifying arc.

Lee’s direction is tight, though setting the piece in the modern “warehouse of a national historical museum” (something you only discover if you read the program) is overly subtle. Still, Tom Buderwitz’s design – mostly masses of stacked, rather facile crates – does allow for a flow of empathetic projections by Hana Sooyeon Kim, and a constant tempo unimpeded by needed set changes. The hidden onstage orchestra, directed by Darryl Archibald, balances with the intimacy of the rest of the production while allowing some remarkable voices like Duncan’s to shine.

What sets this “Ragtime” apart from its predecessors is its ability to be large and small at the same time. There are huge themes underscoring the more personal individual tales, and these themes are, sadly, not foreign to anyone in the audience. Still, the connection created by individual characters, and the lack of white noise from a large supporting cast, brings this large world into a more audience-involved arena, where emotional connection can leave a lasting impact. Yes, sometimes small is better. Come see for yourself.

What: “Ragtime”  When: through March 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays (no 7 p.m. performance Sunday, 2/24). Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: tickets start at $25. Info: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Enough Yucks for the Buck?: “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” at the Falcon

In one of the shows high points, the cast of “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” celebrates commedia dell’arte

The comic playwriting team of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor has created several funny send-ups of classics, known as the “Complete (abridged)” plays. The best known is the wildly funny “Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged)” which even had them falling out of their chairs in London. Thus, a chance to see their more recent concoction, “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” here in the Los Angeles area seemed a no-brainer. Now at the Falcon Theatre, it has another hallmark, being the last show of the last season orchestrated by Falcon founder, the late Garry Marshall, himself no slouch in the comedy department.

Sadly, though there are a number of funny moments, this “Complete History…” does not quite hold up. Well performed by a trio of very talented, high-energy and versatile actors, it still suffers from two essential flaws: a convoluted and unfunny construct which becomes the show’s driving force and supposed aim, and too little material which is funny enough (or not too dated) to power a full two acts of performance.

First, the construct: supposedly a famous Chinese manuscript written by the brother of “The Art of War” writer Sun Tsu, called “The Art of Comedy” (by Ah Tsu… get it?) has been uncovered in a trunk, though it is missing its final chapter. The discovery was made thanks to guidance from a mysterious man in a bowler hat and clown nose. Presenting this fictitious book, and trying to figure out its final chapter, becomes the focus of the show, leading to the uncovering of the identity of the bowler hatted mystery force which brought the book to light.

The best of what follows is a true homage to the history of comedy: the introduction (to many) of the characters in commedia dell’arte, including use of an actual slap-stick, definitions of various “takes”, burlesque silliness, visual comedy of various kinds, and the recurring gag of potential attack with cream pies. There are also slide shows illustrating what is, and what isn’t funny. For the most part, these work too, though some seem a bit forced. There are send-ups of medieval Catholicism, modern politics, and even an homage to Chekhov, whose wry comic takes on the self-absorption of the Russian aristocracy were produced as if they were tragedies.

But there is a lot of dated material. For example, a big musical number about the Supreme Court makes fun of a very alive Antonin Scalia, though he has been dead for over a year. There are other references to personalities only the older members of the audience will remember with that detail, particularly Joseph McCarthy (or Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, for that matter) and Richard Nixon. Indeed, between this and the need to resolve the “who is the man in the bowler hat” scenario, the second act begins to drag and a lot of it simply becomes unfunny.

One cannot fault the performers, however. Zehra Fazal, Marc Ginsburg, and Mark Jacobson prove quick-change artists and creative cross-dressers, interact with the audience and each other, handle physical comedy with great polish, and get just as much as can be gotten out of the material they are handed. Director Jerry Kernion keeps the timing as good as it can be, making the sometimes positively frenetic pace of the thing seem natural. One wonders whether he was allowed – by the playwrights’ people – to insert more updates than a few slides of current political figures into the mix, because given the general artistry of his and his performers, one would think he would have done more to make the thing current if he could have.

Stephen Gifford’s set is just about perfect, setting a specific tone from the very start and facilitating all those costume changes. Those costumes, by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, and Warren Casey’s many and varied comic props, do as much as absolutely possible to make this show as funny as it is. This is a grand effort by a lot of people. It’s just that, by the second half, much of it is simply not funny.

So, sadly, although “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” has some admittedly very laugh-out-loud moments, the lack of consistency and the oddly unsatisfying premise mean that this show does not live up to its potential. Is it terrible? No. Is it poorly done? Also no. It’s just not anywhere near as good as it should have been, but that’s as much the fault of its authors as anything else.

What: “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” When: through April 23, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays Where: The Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside, in Burbank How Much: $30 – $45 Info: (818) 955-8101 or falcontheatre.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

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