Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: McCoy Rigby Entertainment

“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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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

“The Little Mermaid” in La Mirada Charms Almost in Spite of Itself

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of "The Little Mermaid", part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of “The Little Mermaid”, part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

When a stage musical is created from a Disney animated film there are a few basic things to look for. How close was it to being a stage musical in the first place? How will they handle the fact some, if not all the characters are not human? Are the songs in the film appropriate and/or adequate for what one wishes to present on stage? What kind of special effects will be needed to recreate the familiar and beloved elements which made the film work, or should one move to create something new?

In “The Little Mermaid,” now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as part of the McCoy Rigby Series, the answers are extremely visual, creative in staging, and sometimes a bit of a let-down musically. Still, it can be a great way to introduce young people to musical theater as an art form, and has a lighthearted silliness which makes for appealing summer entertainment.

The story, based on a tale by Hans Christian Anderson, as reworked into a Disney film, is familiar to just about everyone by now. It follows a mermaid named Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, who yearns to leave the sea world where she feels she doesn’t belong for the world of humans. Fascinated by all she does not understand, she finds focus for her yearnings when she rescues a Prince Eric, thrown overboard from his sailing vessel, and falls in love with him. She cuts a deal with her evil aunt: her voice (though it is her signature) for legs and a chance to enter the human world.

The production uses sets and costumes designed for Broadway by Kenneth Foy, Amy Clark and, aided by Mark Koss, built for a production partnership headed by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Visually stunning, they capture an underwater feel in remarkable ways. The necessary characters “swim” with flowing fabric, Scuttle the sea gull flies and lands with authority, Sabastian has a significantly “crabby look,” and the evil Ursula’s tentacles wiggle and drape with ominous intent. It’s a great visual feast, aided by John MacInnis’ clever choreography and performed by an able ensemble of singers and dancers.

There are two great differences between the film and the stage production however, besides the obvious lack of water. First is the introduction of 14 songs with lyrics written, not by the award-winning Howard Ashman, but by Glenn Slater – whose work is comparatively pedantic. The second is a greater emphasis on the reason for Ariel’s yearning for the human world – that she doesn’t fit in under the sea – and Eric’s yearning to be a sailor rather than a prince, making both characters outsiders looking for someone who will understand. This, a response to those many who have disliked the film’s message that Ariel, as the girl, had to do all the changing in order to fit into Eric’s world.

Still, Alison Woods gives Ariel both an innocent sweetness and a remarkable voice, and makes the show worth watching. Melvin Abston has a lot of fun with Sabastian, the calypso crab. Eric Kunze, as the prince, is mostly asked to look handsome and sing well, and he does this with aplomb. Time Winters fusses charmingly as his tutor, constantly reminding him that he has duties to live up to. Adam Garst makes a sweetly geeky Flounder, and Fred Inkley becomes an imposing Triton.

Still, other than Woods, the standouts of the evening are Jamie Torcellini as the malaprop-dropping, tap dancing seagull Scuttle, Jeff Skowron in a brief but intensely memorable bit as a chef preparing a table-full of seafood dishes, and Tracy Lore as the sea witch Ursula – doing everything but twirling a mustache in her delightedly straightforward villainy. And, of course, there are those songs: “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl,” among others. These works by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman set the tone for the modern Disney animated film – a legacy which has allowed one after another to be turned into successful stage events.

So, go see “The Little Mermaid.” You’ll enjoy a visual treat, and be joined by bevies of young girls – some even in costume – who will swoon to every move, and know every important line. And this is important, really, as a gateway for a new generation’s enthusiasm for live performance. A little stage magic (and this show has quite a bit) goes a long way in that wooing process.

What: “The Little Mermaid” When: Through June 26, 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

“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

Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: More of same, but still fun

Maripat Donovan is Sister, in her 6th edition of "Late Night Catechism," where "Sister Throws the Dice".

Maripat Donovan is Sister, in her 6th edition of “Late Night Catechism,” where “Sister Rolls the Dice”.

In the six years since Maripat Donovan began her stint as Sister in “Late Night Catechism” people have been charmed by the humorous, though not bitingly satiric, homage to traditional Catholic doctrine this supposed teaching nun delivers. After the long initial runs of the original work, Donovan and her writing partner/director Marc Silvia have taken Sister’s evening catechism lectures in many different directions.

The newest of these, “Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice,” involves Sister’s plans to fund-raise using a Vegas Night. First she wants to try out her newly minted magic and card trick skills on her evening class. Now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, thanks to the McCoy-Rigby Series, the new show has many of the qualities which have made LNC such a franchise: wry wit, sincerity and an atmosphere reminiscent of a particular kind of gleeful amateurism (though, of course, Donovan is no amateur).

All the most popular bits are there: the casual inclusion of elemental Catholicism (prayer cards are handed out, saints are invoked, and even the magic tricks have occasional flickers of iconography), the question and answer segments, the insistence on respectful behavior. And yet, as always, the show is more than the sum of its parts, in great measure because of Donovan’s ownership if Sister. She gets this woman – the way she thinks, the way she copes with mistakes or outrageous questions or even inappropriate clothing. As the character shows love of life, so the audience shows love of the character.

The Las Vegas theme is a bit free-form, however, made up more than usually of ad libs based on audience participation. This may add to the silliness quotient, but it leaves little for the “class” time – the wonderfully free-form interpretations of Catholicism which have been the trademark of earlier LNC renditions. Still, the fun is there, and by the time Donovan gives her usual pitch for funds for local nuns in retirement (the last time in La Mirada it bought a local nuns’ retirement home a van), the audience is ready to give back after an evening of light, airy, silly entertainment.

The night I saw it was particularly lacking in folks who were Catholic, which is really too bad. Those raised in Catholic schools, or in the church itself, are usually those who laugh the loudest. Still, those who were there were having a great time. One word of warning: if you sit close to the front be sure you’re wearing clothing you’d want the rest of the audience to see, as you are very likely to be asked to stand, or even go onstage. I’m sure at least one person so called upon, on opening night, wished they’d been warned.

What: “Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice” When: Through November 16, 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

“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

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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