Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Mark Frederickson

The Curious Savage in Whittier: Unique Individuals, Gentle Humor

l. to r.: Richard de Vicariis, Candy Beck and Elizabeth M. Desloge in The Curious Savage at Whittier Community Theatre

For the second play of their 96th season, the Whittier Community Theatre has chosen the gently comic “The Curious Savage” by John Patrick. In a time when the battle between decency and avarice is played out in the news and on all forms of media on a regular basis, the play itself seems particularly apt. The quietly wry wit of Patrick’s play, and its message to humanity, have kept in relevant even as a few other aspects seem somewhat dated.

The setting is 1950, and an institution called The Cloisters – a home for persons who are wrestling with the balance between their hopes and fears and what the world deems as real. Into this calming but unique community arrives Mrs. Ethel Savage, the widow of a wealthy man. She has been placed in The Cloisters by her three step-children, determined to stop her from frittering away the millions they expect to inherit.

Mrs. Savage, having doted upon her husband from an early age, is now determined not only to act out the silly wishes she kept dormant, but to form a fund to let others do the same: an appallingly crazy concept to the determined trio who have committed her.
In The Cloisters, she encounters five damaged but sincere individuals to whom she listens and with whom she develops a unique rapport. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the step-children do not have her best interests at heart, it is these “inmates”, and the doctor and assistant who attend them, who may be able to rise to the occasion and prove her right to her own desires.

Though the WCT production starts a bit slow, it builds into a very likable piece. As the step-children, Gary Page’s pompous US Senator proves sharp and commanding, Frank McCay’s childish judge has just the right whine, and Elizabeth M. Desloge (despite a somewhat unfortunate wig) makes a most focused money-grubber. Richard De Vicariis, as the presiding doctor, manages one of his best, gently underplayed performances. LIkewise, Amy Miramontes proves warmly humane as the attendant nurturing the institution’s inhabitants.

As for the inhabitants, Janet Arnold-Clark makes sweet work of the woman whose fantasy keeps her dead little boy alive, and Jeffrey Buckner-Rodas, as a man convinced he can play the violin, proves both earnest and charmingly suggestible. Carlos David Lopez unwinds gradually as a man so stricken with survivor’s guilt he carries it into self-image, while Cindy Cisneros gives the young girl desperate to deserve love and attention a quirky gusto. Best of the lot is Julie Breihan’s truly funny Mrs. Paddy, who hates everything with a spectacular sulky look and delivery.

Mrs. Savage herself must, rightly, be filled with an energy which powers her ability to connect with her fellow inhabitants, and defines the drive to circumvent her wastrel stepchildren in order to achieve her dreams. Cindy Beck, a WCT regular in a number of capacities, warms to this gradually, so that her best version of Ethel arrives after the intermission. From then on, she commands the proceedings, creating an atmosphere of warmth, and underscoring the play’s central points.

Mark Frederickson’s set makes good use of Whittier Community Center’s long, slender stage, giving a realism to the piece. Karen Jacobsen’s costumes generally, if not precisely, reflect the period. The ending piece – a picture of what the inmates see when they look in the mirror – proves particularly striking, when it arrives.

Director Lenore Stjerne has a feel for the point and the humor of this play. Indeed, the playwright’s abjuration that the “inmates of The Cloisters be treated with warmth and dignity” is obviously focal to her pacing and structuring of the performances. As a result, what one finds is a contrast between dreamers and takers, between human kindness and self-focus. In the end, this may be the most important thing about going to see “The Curious Savage.” Who actually is a savage provides a pointed finger at what so many have or yearn to become.

As part of their annual Thanksgiving drive, bring a non-perishable food item to the box office and receive a free goodie (they have brownies!) at intermission. All contributions will be donated to the local food bank.

What: “The Curious Savage” When: through November 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 12 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 adults; $12 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), students, and military with ID Info: (565) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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I Want to Laugh More! – Inconsistency of focus mars WCT’s “Johnny Guitar the Musical”

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

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

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