Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” at La Mirada: As Good As It Gets

Thomas Hobson, Amber Liekhus, Frenchie Davis, Natalie Wachen and Boise Holmes salute Fats Waller in “Ain’t Misbehavin'” at La Mirada Theatre, as part of the McCoy-Rigby Entertainment Series


In my earliest days as a theater critic, I covered for the volunteer reviewer at the Altadena Chronicle and thus was able to see the original cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” when they came to the old Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. I fell in love, with the music of course, but even more with the characters this amazing cast was able to create without actually speaking more than ten words outside the songs themselves. It was magic, and those who give awards agreed.

I have searched during the decades since then for a production of this musical which can hold up a decent mirror to the original. I don’t expect a carbon copy – indeed, in general I argue against expecting any live theater to survive by refusing to do anything but what was done initially. Instead I continued to look for the same verve, the same sense of connection and, frankly, of everyone onstage having a blast, that had typified the original. It did not, apparently, translate well.

For a long time I thought it was simply that the Aquarius had been comparatively intimate, as are some Broadway theaters. Did a larger size of the space ruin the intimacy? The answer, I now know is that it does not. Thanks to the new production from McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, at the La Mirada Theatre, I now know it is the sense of ensemble, and of fun, which makes the show live no matter the height of the proscenium, or the size of the audience.

And live it does, in La Mirada, in the best production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” I have seen since the first one.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a salute to Thomas “Fats” Waller, both as a songwriter and as an extremely popular performer of other people’s music, as well as a comedic performer – a huge star in the 1930s and 40s. The five performers embrace his stride-piano jazz style, sing favorites which have entered the American songbook, silly bits from his work for Harlem clubs, and the occasional emotional punch in the gut with character and style, and build a sense of relationship along the way.

The way this show was structured gives a flow which makes its own drama. Highlights include such moments as Boise Holmes and Frenchie Davis crooning “Honeysuckle Rose” with just the right underscore of lascivious intent, or Thomas Hobson’s slippery “Viper’s Drag,” a salute to marijuana. A salute to the trials of life during World War II brings Davis, Amber Liekhus and Natalie Wachen together to dream of “When the Nylons Bloom Again”, while Holmes and Hobson join forces to cluck over a guy who’s “Fat and Greasy.”

They all join in on commentary regarding the compromises needed to play for white audiences while “ “Lounging at the Waldorf.” Then, suddenly, the company’s wrenchingly serious “Black and Blue” underscores the truth of stardom in an era of segregation and limited acceptance. Transitions like these make this show, and they are done well throughout.

This production is directed by Ken Page, a member of the original company who has been able to communicate that ensemble feel to the performers. Under his leadership, Davis handles the part originally performed by the great Nell Carter, and manages to find a balance between that legacy and her own ways of showing strength and humor.

Wachen does solid work with the most youthful and acrobatic of the women’s roles, while Liekhus turns the often underwhelming part – the sweet counterbalance to the more demanding edges of the others – into quite an interesting addition to the whole. The men are equally excellent, with Holmes offering depth and humor while Hobson offers a slightly slippery quality full of mystery. The interconnectedness of the ensemble proves totally engaging, and great fun.

Kudos to Jeffrey Polk for the choreography, and to Lanny Hartley, who leads a top notch live band from his onstage position as pianist – a position which makes him one of the characters in the ensemble as well. An important nod to costumer Shon LeBlanc, who manages to capture the feel of the original and – like the other creative forces involved – balance it with his own vision.

In short, this show is very, very good. If you have any interest in jazz from the first half of the 20th Century, or you love classic blues, or even just want to have a great time at the theater, run, do not walk, to get tickets to this “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. It’s not here for long, but you’ll regret not seeing it if you don’t find a way.

What: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” When: through October 8, 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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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

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