Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.
Tag Archives: Pasadena Playhouse
November 18, 2017Posted by on
In order to fully understand the tensions of the play now open at the Pasadena Playhouse, it would be helpful have some background in the last century of the British monarchy. By this I do not mean necessarily that fascination with the soap opera played out in public by the royal family in the last few decades, but the ways in which the monarchy has defined its role – and had that role defined for it – in what is otherwise a strongly democratic parliamentary system. What does it mean that the monarch “reigns but does not rule”?
This proves central to “Charles III”, Mike Bartlett’s examination of the constitutional and emotional conundrum facing the current Prince Charles almost as soon as he takes the throne. He, like all monarchs, must sign every bill passed by the parliament before it becomes law, but this is mostly a ceremonial formality. When one crosses his desk he feels is detrimental to his country’s freedom, what can he do? What should he do? What could any action mean to the delicate balance that is the British system?
What makes all of this particularly delicious is Bartlett’s conscious choice to tell the tale in Shakespearean format. There is a ghost speaking cryptic predictions. There is iambic pentameter. There is a moral dilemma played out in the rich format of formal dialogue. Though, by modern standards, this may make the play seem talky, at the same time it relishes in the echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth – the awesome and terrible load on those who wear the crown.
Jim Abele is Charles, a man who has waited a literal lifetime to attain the only job he has ever been trained for. As such Abele finds the balance of the formality of the job and the character’s deep passion for justice in ways which show both his warmth and his sense of command. Adam Haas Hunter, as William, suddenly a crown prince, emphasizes the stoicism and the festering frustrations of destiny, while Meghan Andrews creates in his wife a sense of command which portends a wrangle over definitions of power. Dylan Saunders’ Harry underscores the frustrating uselessness which is the fate of royal younger sons. Sarah Hollis stands out as the girl who introduces Harry to a reality outside the palace, providing a rounded sense of the real life Harry yearns for.
On the other side of the argument, both powerful and adversarial, is J. Paul Boehmer as the prime minister who finds himself in a tense standoff with a king with his own understanding of his role, the parameters of Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, and the needs of a people he may or may not understand. The resulting questions power the play. Is what the people want always the right thing to do? Is there a safety valve available through the monarchy for unwise governmental action? Are the royal family puppets of political forces who, in truth, find them superfluous?
Director Michael Michetti takes what could be a static and talky script and gives it fascinating legs, in part by bringing it out into the Playhouse audience space. Parliament is on the floor with the patrons, and the almost forbidding palatial spaces of David Meyer’s remarkable set provide the instant formality and distance which define the main conundrums of the piece. This, even by itself, helps move one past the details of British constitutional practice into the humanity of the characters and the fearsome angst of the choices being made.
“King Charles III” is, of course, a fiction. Still, by tying its format and emotional core to Shakespeare’s insightful portraits of former kings both real and imaginary, there is a larger concept at play than just wondering what Charles will be like when and if he ascends the throne. Rather, there is a real, active focus on the monarch’s role to “advise and warn”, and how that works in a world awash in sensational media and quick answers to complex questions. As such, it is a treat for the mind as well as the artistic sense.
What: “King Charles III” When: through December 3, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, and no performance on Thanksgiving, or at 7 p.m. Sunday, November 26 Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $96 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
October 7, 2017Posted by on
When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” first appeared in 1938, its production was a radical departure from what theater had been up until that time. This intimate portrait of small town New Hampshire at the start of the 20th Century would prove to modern audiences what theater could do that film (and later television) could not: allow the audience to fill in details of setting, props and other physical elements on their own, without elaborate stage trappings. It would celebrate what Shakespeare knew, that the audience was ready to lean upon their own imaginations.
The Pasadena Playhouse has produced this Pulitzer Prize-winning play twice before in its 100 year history. Now, in association with Deaf West Theatre, it has opened again, and – thanks to this collaboration – their new production underscores the essential tenets of stagecraft which made the original such a satisfying departure. Hearing and hearing-impaired performers speak two languages at once (English and ASL), and their individual characters and performance styles meld into a whole Wilder himself would approve of. Good thing, too, for “Our Town” is completely performance-dependent. There is nothing gaudy or distracting to take attention off the actors themselves.
The story covers a few central characters over the course of life in a small town, focused most strongly on George Gibbs and the girl next door, Emily Webb. We watch them and their families as George and Emily grow from childhood friends, to a couple about to marry, and then to the moment Emily’s death closes the circle. We watch them as the “stage manager” (in this case one hearing person and three deaf persons, essentially intertwined) narrates, explains, draws verbal pictures of the larger goings on, and rounds out the town’s sense of community. All of this on a bare stage with a few ropes, a couple of ladders and a host of chairs. It has always been rather revelatory to watch.
Standouts include Jane Kaczmarek, as the stage manager, joined in some cases by Russell Harvard when he’s not playing Emily’s father, sometimes by Alexandria Wailes, when she is not playing George’s mother, and at other times by Troy Kotsur, when he’s not playing the town’s church organist and resident alcoholic. The virtual dance they do in shifting in and out of Kaczmarek’s sphere proves both humorous and fascinating. Kaczmarek herself provides the calm and patient embodiment of the town as a whole, and stands as interpreter of a script she shepherds along. The success of this combination of forces comes to define what works in this production.
Sandra Mae Frank makes a charmingly innocent Emily, aided by the voice of Sharon Pierre-Louis in a way which meshes the physicalized and vocalized lines into a very effective whole. Deric Augustine gives George the gee-whiz attitude of a small-town baseball player shy with girls and earnest in looking forward. Annika Marks makes Emily’s mother practical and loving. Jud Williford makes George’s father humorous and practical.
A remarkable ensemble of Marie-France Arcilla, Harold Foxx, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Leonard Kelly-Young, Dot-Marie Jones, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, Sharon Pierre-Louis, and On Shiu provide the rest of the town, voices for those characters who only sign, and flesh out even the set on occasion. Of these, the true standouts are Foxx, as a milkman with a very opinionated horse, and Jones as a woman from a troubled marriage who still thrills at going to weddings.
Everyone signs. This is important, though (as has been stated elsewhere) a few hearing cast members are brand new to ASL and it sometimes shows in their slowness of speech. On the other hand, the use of sign is a theatrical virtue in itself, as it provides emphasis, enthusiasm, even a sense of prayer or dance to moments which would otherwise just be words. “Our Town” is of necessity talky, and making the talk visual breathes a newness into it all.
Director Sheryl Kaller has experience with this kind of melding, and has taken the universality she sees in this script a step further, including (obviously) those who are hearing and those who are not, but also amassing a cast rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. Choreographer David Dorfman has facilitated the sense of dance that is sign taken as music, as well as moments of movement necessary to the storyline or to this duality of voice.
In the end, what Wilder had to say with this play comes out just as strongly, if not more so, as it did in the original: things change, but not those things that define us. That, joined with a desire to treasure every moment which will not come again, meshed with the impossibility of that very desire as our day-to-day flows by far too quickly. There is a peace and perspective and timelessness to “Our Town” which is important in this fractious and divisive time. Adding together two important but often separate cultures of America – that of the hearing and the deaf – makes a statement as well about what this town, this stage, this nation really has to offer.
“Our Town” is a love song to that which is best in American culture, which we rarely take time to notice. Go. Stop for a while. Notice what’s up on stage, and celebrate what is so important in the unimportant details of life.
What: “Our Town” When: through October 22, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $92 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
August 20, 2017Posted by on
“Shout, Sister, Shout,” which has just ended its premiere run at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, is supposed to tell her story. It does so by the creaky device of having Sister Rosetta stopped at the pearly gates, told to go save a sad-faced white boy from himself before she can go into Heaven. So, she goes down and recounts snippets of her story to him, sings a lot, and challenges the young man to reach into his own music. What the show really is is a collection of her best numbers, many of them her own, and occasional performances by those she encountered along the way, from church groups to Mahalia Jackson. The snips of life story are then thrown in for effect.
Sadly, the script is stodgy, and so episodic one rarely gets a chance to connect either with Sharpe or with those who interacted with her on the way – many of whom are given one or maybe two lines to indicate they ever existed. The wan young man is more a distraction than anything else, and his sudden heart-wrenching solo at the end, penned for this show by Melissa Manchester, does nothing to enhance Sharpe’s actual story, which should be the focus of the piece.
Tracy Nicole Chapman does bring spunk and zing to Sharpe herself, but she is called upon to play a series of guitars almost all the time, and – if the rather overblown (as in so loud you can’t hear the lyrics) amplification is telling the truth, she rarely actually plays them. This is a problem when one is representing a person especially known for her guitar stylings. If she does, it is simple strumming, rather than the blues guitar Sharpe was known for.
On the other hand, there are moments of great light from Yvette Cason, who manages to play Sharpe’s evangelist mother with a powerful voice and personality, then switch to the stylings of Mahalia Jackson without skipping a beat. Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes and Armando Yearwood, Jr. form a powerful church-rocking trio, while Michael A. Shepperd (most memorable as the preacher briefly Sharpe’s first husband), and Angela Teek Hitchman (as the partner Sharpe toured with in her happiest period) round out the ensemble. Young Logan Charles, as the lost kid Sharpe is supposed to save, does a reasonable job, though his part is more spur to the next story than anything particularly rounded.
Still, they cannot overcome Cheryl L. West’s hopelessly episodic book, which jumps from image to image with just enough information to spur the next song. The music is good and the stage band makes it better, except that the amps are turned up so high much of the song lyrics – which, in several cases, are expected to move the story along – are completely unintelligible: okay if you already know them, but death to anyone who has come to the show to be introduced to Sharpe for the first time.
There is so much promise of what “Shout, Sister, Shout” could have been that the results proved deeply disappointing. Even the most solid performances seemed to be sitting on a very, very fragile framework. No argument that Sister Rosetta Sharpe was a powerful and fascinating element in the development of American music. One just wishes this show did her justice.
May 7, 2017Posted by on
Note: Though this review appeared online and in print for newspapers of the Southern California News Group, it was not posted here – for various reasons (but mostly the day job getting in the way) – until the day it closed. So, here it is, just as informational writing.
In the opening moments of John Strand’s “The Originalist,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is addressing a large group at The Federalist Society. For those who care to look, this is an elegant shorthand about his background. (If you need to know more, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s article in the April 17 copy of The New Yorker, which discusses that organization’s agenda, and its foundational drive to train and raise up originalist conservative judges.) It is also an immediate line in the sand: this man is incredibly secure in his view of the role of the judiciary, and will not be swayed.
Now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, “The Originalist” offers up a potentially interesting discussion. Scalia has hired a liberal law school graduate to be one of his clerks. Though dismissed by some as a token – liberal, female, and Black – there is some indication that he wants her there so he can hone his own opinion by bouncing it off of the opposition. The playwright assures us that it “is a play about hope.” What the play wants to argue for is the idea of returning to a sense of the middle ground, of compromise. Indeed, by the end of the play, Scalia has actually taken one piece of this intern’s advice on wording. Still, that is not what most of the audience will come away with, for two reasons.
First, the Justice Scalia in the play comes off as a confident, extremely well-versed constitutional scholar willing to use shock language to make his point as he writes dissenting opinions on court rulings with which he fundamentally disagrees. He is quick to skewer those whose opinions don’t match his, in part with intellect, but in great part with a snide quality he takes great relish in. For those within hearing who agree with Scalia’s conservative views, this play thus becomes confirmation of their own views, especially on issues of individual rights. For many who are opposed to his opinions this play may seem an advertisement for a path they see as destructive to progress. Few will actually spend time absorbing the one brief moment of compromise as having much impact.
Second, there is an attempt to humanize Justice Scalia which also seems to jar with the persona one faces through most of the play. His moments of kindness seem pasted on, rather than allowed to become integral to the point at hand – that of being able to hear views not his own without belittling them. Of course, there is some reason for this. This is the man whose tone has been critiqued over time by scholars – not his originalism or his jurisprudence necessarily, but his tone. In the play he acknowledges this, and refers to himself as a monster, satirically but even so there is meat there.
However, though one can argue with the play itself, one cannot argue with the performances. Edward Gero makes such a good Scalia it’s almost spooky. He radiates confidence and that satiric absolutism without ever turning into a cartoon. Jade Wheeler gives the clerk, Cat, all the warmth and complexity that the script’s Scalia lacks, as she reasons her way through a difficult job while also dealing with difficult side issues. Brett Mack makes the insufferable young Federalist Society member and SCOTUS clerk wannabe, Brad, as annoying, and clueless about American social issues, as that sounds. Brad is, perhaps, the play’s only truly two-dimensional character, but Mack gives it what character one can.
Director Molly Smith has given this extremely talky, episodic tale a sense of movement and life which flows seemingly effortlessly from start to finish. Misha Kachman’s minimalist scenic design allows for the quick shifts needed to accomplish Smith’s goals. Indeed, there is craft throughout this piece, which is performed without intermission.
Still, one must look at the takeaway. Antonin Scalia was a complicated man who ended up on the wrong side of many SCOTUS decisions which advanced rights and governmental power in ways he felt were unConstitutional, because he was an originalist. This play does not really explore that complexity, but neither does it achieve its agenda of pushing the viewer toward the view Cat seems to be leaning into: that compromise is possible and all sides should be respected and heard. Certainly, the audience reactions I heard came, rather, from internal confirmation bias in one direction or the other, which is the exact opposite of the play’s intent.
What: “The Originalist” When: This show has closed Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena Info for future shows at the Playhouse: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
June 16, 2016Posted by on
Author Sandra Tsing Loh has made her name speaking to things many women wrestle with as they grow up and grow older, often with a wry humor which takes the edge off her topics’ occasional edginess. Best known to most Los Angelinos for her quick “The Loh Life” spots on KPCC, Loh has a a larger radio presence nationally, and has published popular books, including the celebrated memoir “The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones.”
Now she has turned that book into a play, just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. From a trip to the desert and Burning Man, through marital upheavals and the re-sorting of her entire life, the play – a combination of narration and caricature – walks us through the hot flashes, sudden passion shifts and travails of Loh’s entrance into menopause. Often funny, the show also cuts close to the bone, detailing her mother’s retreat into depression, and her own struggles with the emotional wrenches hormonal changes and life changes can bring with them.
The results are mixed. The editing necessary to turn a full-blown memoir into a 90 minute play with no intermission means the tone shifts, particularly at the end, can be jarring. Not the storyline itself, though it is frantically episodic, but the actual tone of the narration – that moment when wry wit won’t do, and yet shift to seriousness meets with resistance. In the end, one can celebrate the performances, which are intense and compelling, but still wish for a bit more work on the script itself.
Joining Loh, who shifts constantly from narrator to participant in her own tale, are Caroline Aaron and Shannon Holt, who play absolutely everyone else important to the story line, from gal pals on an adventure, to boyfriends, therapists, and all the other personalities which give this construction its most compelling moments. The sheer versatility of the two, who create individual character after individual character, becomes the focal joy of this production.
Director Lisa Peterson keeps the tale moving, and pacing is key in anything this episodic. Rachel Hauck’s geometric, open set design allows the “setting” to become anything needed, from a coffee house to an RV, simply by dint of audience imagination – another great aid to the pacing and flow of the piece. Indeed all the pieces are there, production-wise.
Yet, that ending still needs work. Yes, the arch tone of the beginning morphs into the seriousness of depression, and there are some issues with that shift, but perhaps most jarring is the almost tacked on upbeat close. Genuine though all its parts are, the final polish still isn’t quite complete. Still, there is much to recommend “The Madwoman in the Volvo” (the term comes from the moment she pulls off the freeway to have a meltdown), and much is very recognizable. And there are Loh’s familiar humorous descriptions, which can make even a session with a couple’s therapist funny in the extreme. It can only get better.
What: “The Madwoman in the Volvo” When: through June 26, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
March 25, 2016Posted by on
The story behind the birth of Harvey Fierstein’s fascinating, historical play “Casa Valentina” makes a good tale all by itself. A collector discovered a box of old photos at a flea market, which initially looked like a group of dressed up women lounging at an upstate New York resort called “Casa Susanna.” Only they weren’t women, but men. When Fierstein was approached to consider making a play from this evidence of a clandestine cross-dressing community, his research increased his fascination, and led to this play.
Set in the earliest 1960s, “Casa Valentina” explores the specific and at the time secret world of cross-dressing men – that is, men who feel attracted to and comfortable in women’s clothing, make-up, etc. These are often men who are happily married, have kids, and are otherwise completely connected to mainstream culture, but still have a need to take on this separate persona on occasion. Misunderstandings and gray areas were and are a part of the mix, however. In a time period when not only homosexuality (though by and large cross-dressers have not identified as gay) but even dressing inappropriately for one’s gender were illegal in many states, such issues were also dangerous.
Now receiving its west coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, and gifted with an extraordinarily versatile cast, “Casa Valentina” explores much of this as we visit a fictitious 1962 Catskills retreat run by George (also known as Valentina) and his wife Rita. Along with their usual “sisterhood” of clientele, a nationally important leader of a rights movement has come to recruit an east coast chapter of her/his new nonprofit organization. This brings some unexpected baggage, heightens tensions among the group, and creates much of the drama of the piece.
There are two elements which most directly make this play work well. First and foremost is Fierstein’s ability to create rich, humorous, rounded characters who can open worlds to his audience. His is a gift not unlike Neil Simon’s: the ability to say something serious, yet inject humor at just the right moments to keep that serious focus from becoming maudlin. Second has to be the seamless ensemble of an adventurous cast. Each of the men make remarkable work of their transitions, not just in dress but in carriage and style.
Robert Mammana proves pivotal as George, whom we watch move in and out of his alter-ego, all the while carrying a nervous energy founded on George’s legal and economic problems. As the wise-cracking Albert/Bessie, Raymond McAnally radiates the joy of a man totally comfortable with embracing his female side in an atmosphere of acceptance. Mark Jude Sullivan vibrates with practicality as George/Valentina’s friend Michael/Gloria. Lawrence Pressman offers the long view as the older, specifically genteel and gently open-minded Theodore/Terry. John Vickery’s commanding judge, and wary Amy, each underscore many of the themes of the piece.
Still, perhaps the most fascinating characters have to include James Snyder’s careful neophyte, as his character Jonathan takes on the persona of Miranda for the first time. As activist, even zealot Charlotte/Isadore, Christian Clemenson makes an extremely convincing middle-aged woman – a point of which her character is very proud. As the center of the self-created storm which powers the piece, this is essential. Also fascinating, and poignant, is George’s wife Rita, played with a wry wistfulness by Valerie Mahaffey. Indeed, it is her dilemma at play’s end which brings the struggles of all involved into particular focus.
Director David Lee truly “gets” all these characters and their sense of need, emphasizing a sense of normality and humanness throughout. This in turn allows the themes of the play to air without the potential tensions which could be associated with any less genuine approach. Tom Buderwitz has outdone himself with the show’s set, which rotates from outside to porch to inside, and displays upstairs and down, as men transform and socialize, get silly and get drunk, and enjoy being themselves. Kate Bergh has created costumes which enhance the characters of individuals and emphasize the time period with seeming effortlessness.
What proves most engrossing, by the end, is this entire hidden society of straight men whose unique predilection left them as much in the closet as any other living outside what society thought of as a norm. Within all of this the concept of intolerance, and the forms it can take even within a culture hiding from the world, leaves one absolutely fascinated. For this we have Harvey Fierstein, a long-since disappeared Camp Susanna, and a box of old photos to thank.
What: Casa Valentina When: Through April 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, plus premium seating at $125 Info: http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org or (626) 356-7529
February 4, 2016Posted by on
One of the great, and completely non-transferable, pleasures of live theater comes from an audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Whereas most other media demand absolute realism – real walls, real planes, real surroundings of any kind – in the theater (to paraphrase Shakespeare) when actors speak of their surroundings, the audience sees them. This can lead to a specific kind of emotional power, and a fluidity of storytelling, the kind of storytelling amply demonstrated in “Fly” at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“Fly,” by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, tells in small the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – the unit of African-American fighter pilots trained at Tuskegee University and sent to Europe to protect US bombers flying over occupied Europe. The 332nd Fighter Group, known commonly as the Red Tails, established an extraordinary record for bravery and excellence, and broke down significant racial barriers between themselves and the white bomber pilots during the heat of battle. Yet, even getting to that place was a matter of a larger battle, overcoming the skepticism of the white officers who would train and assign them here at home.
In “Fly,” this tale becomes visceral through a series of theatrical effects. Four fascinatingly individual characters are taken through their training and battle careers on a set made up of four chairs, four trunks, and a series of screens upon which their surroundings – including the skies through which they fly – are projected. It works, as we dive and weave with them through the clouds, or walk carefully with them through the dangers of a night off base in the deep South. Their sublimated emotions of anger, frustration and joy are given “voice” by an extraordinary dancer using tap as a vehicle for the emotions which could not be overtly expressed in their segregated world.
An impressively articulated ensemble makes the show work. Brooks Brantly creates the brash W.W., a man from the gangs of Chicago whose ladykiller persona hides a deep-seated drive to rise. Terrell Wheeler becomes Oscar, a man of great principal focused on the importance of this unit to the pride of his race. Damian Thompson creates J. Allen, a man from the Caribbean bringing a more British view to the stresses of training under white officers. Desmond Newsom focuses the story as Chet, the kid of the group – a boy whose fake ID and love of flying has allowed him to sneak into the program.
Speaking with his feet to their stresses and celebrations, the extraordinary Omar Edwards takes the art of tap into new dimensions. Providing the stressors upon these young recruits, the casual prejudices of Anthony J. Goes’ training officer underscore the innate prejudice of society at large and the military specifically during that period. As the pilot and co-pilot of the bomber our fighter pilots protect in Europe, Ross Cowan and Brandon Nagle emphasize the changes in attitude forged by battle, and combine with the Brantly and Newsom for the show’s funniest, and in many ways most telling moment: a pseudo-ceremony blown way out of proportion.
Under director-author Khan, such scenes become organic, as the play – which runs 90 minutes without intermission – remains compelling watching from start to end. Beginning and ending with modern day, and the final acknowledgement of the impressive feats of the 332nd, the show becomes a neat package of humanity and history, tied together in ways which emphasize the human cost of prejudice as well as conflict. As such it becomes a truly American tale.
Special acknowledgement needs to go to projection designer Clint Allen, whose work makes the moments of action come alive on Beowulf Boritt’s cockpit-shaped set. It’s a visual treat, even in its stark simplicity.
In short, go see this. The tale is compelling, deeply emotional, and essentially true. The acting is top-notch from start to finish. The minimalism of setting makes the story the star. And the ending is one of the most moving of recent memory. What a marvelous addition to what has long been designated as Black History Month.
What: “Fly” When: Through February 21, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, with $125 premium seating Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
November 8, 2015Posted by on
One of the trickiest things to write about, for either stage or screen, is the interior of the entertainment business. In part due to the overall public fascination with fame and its potentially fleeting nature, everyone thinks they already know everything they need to. And what most people know is the soap-opera aspects emphasized by the tabloid-style press and by episodic television. This may indeed be what the interior of the entertainment business really is, but to explore it risks being either obvious or repetitive of all other attempts to look at the same thing.
Take as example the new musical just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse. “Breaking Through” with a book by Kirsten Guenther and the songs of Cliff Downs and Katie Kahanovitz, tries to explore the world of the popular music industry in this risky and treacherous age. Based on Kahanovitz’s actual experiences, it boasts a strong musical core, and reasonably interesting characters but cannot escape the stereotypical melodrama of the oft-told tale.
The story follows Charlie Jane, the daughter of a once-popular musical star who fell and vanished over a decade before. She writes wistfully interesting songs and comes to her mother’s old record company to try her hand at stardom. What happens, of course, is that the machine which is the modern music industry offers the Faustian choice between personal artistic integrity and fame. The choices Charlie Jean makes, and the examples around her of the outcomes of others choices, create the drama.
As the central character, Alison Luff manages the combination of innocence and drive which makes Charlie Jane feel genuine. She sings in more than one style with an authenticity legitimizing her rise, even as she morphs into a standardized pop star look. As her roommate and pal, who tries to keep her realistic, Teya Patt has show-stealing moments and provides a reality check not only for Charlie Jane but for the audience. Matt Magnusson, as the established star who becomes Charlie’s segue into the recording company system, finds a credible balance between genuine talent, captivation with his own image, and a deep fear of irrelevance.
Perhaps the two most captivating character studies, however, come in supporting roles. As the industry executive who ends up piloting much of Charlie’s career, debating her own choices in the process, Nita Whitaker climbs beyond the usual stereotype with strongly evoked character and a powerful song of internal monologue, “For the Best,” which stops the show. Playing a star eaten up by the system, Kacee Clanton does more than provide a warning, creating a particular pathos which also climbs beyond her stereotypical lines.
An ensemble of talent and precision backs up the story, and aided by Tyce Diorio’s choreography and John Iacovelli’s mobile set, creates the atmosphere in which Charlie Jane’s story unfolds. Director Sheldon Epps has avoided the pitfalls of such an episodic tale by using this ensemble and this amazingly facile collection of set pieces – aided impressively by the projections of Kaitlyn Pietras – to create a constant flow from space to space and time to time, in and out of concert sessions into intimate spaces without one extra breath. Indeed, if this show could become superior based on pacing and professionalism, the job would be done, and done well.
The original songs represent all the styles in discussion, providing not only mood but a comparison between the glitz of packaged popular music and the more intimate songs expressive of individualism. This appears the show’s creators are most interested in pushing forward: the villainy of the “music machine” which homogenizes the musical talents it absorbs. In this it succeeds, though by itself it cannot overcome the melodramatic nature of the general storyline. If the top studio executive, played by Robert W. Arbogast, (the show’s major villain) could twirl a mustache, he would. The sweetness of the heroine and the villainy of the system are so intense it becomes simplistic.
Which is all to say that “Breaking Through” proves visually and musically interesting. It is profoundly well produced. Unfortunately, it has little to say which is actually new, or particularly subtle. And this may be its breaking point. Musicals today are expected to fall into one of two categories: the “just for fun” shows reminiscent of the extravaganzas of the 30s, and musicals with something specific, and fairly profound, to say. This show falls in that gray area somewhere in between.
What: “Breaking Through” When: Through November 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $87 with premium seating at $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
September 17, 2015Posted by on
Take as example the seminal “Real Women Have Curves,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse. Josefina Lopez’s semi-autobiographical tale of struggling Latina garment workers in Los Angeles rings as true today as when it first appeared on the stage decades ago. Now in an enthusiastic, occasionally flawed, richly organic production at the Pasadena Playhouse, the show has lost little of its humor or its transformative power.
The tale centers on the rebellious Ana, the recent high school graduate with a newly minted resident’s card who has been strong-armed by her mother to help in her big sister’s tiny garment factory. There, while the sister, Estela, sweats the bills, deadlines and possible ICE raids (as she does not have the legal status her sister and mother have acquired), Carmen journals her frustrations and hopes, and dreams of college and a brighter future. She also documents the daily frustrations of factory life, with her mother, Carmen, and the two other factory workers: the angry Pancha who dreams of a life with the children she cannot have, and the delicate Rosali whose body image issues underscore her general fragility.
Director Seema Sueko has gathered a strong ensemble cast, and each character stands out even as they all create a unified sense of place and purpose. Santana Dempsey leads the cast in many ways as the rebellious Ana, vibrating with frustration and a deep unwillingness to give up on her dreams. Cristina Frias makes Estela wryly hopeful and in her own way, deeply committed to dreams which deepen as the story unfolds.
Blanca Araceli has the older generation’s attitudes and habits down cold, and makes the cultural references which define relationship and background with a particular conviction. Ingrid Oliu manages the balance of anguish, anger and community as the conflicted Pancha, while Diana DeLaCruz emphasizes the fragility and yearning of Rosali’s negative self-image all the while making her perhaps the most earnestly sweet member of the group.
Indeed, the only issues one can find with the production are subtle. There is constant talk of how heavy everyone other than Rosali is, and that is used to define character, yet the two sisters Ana and Estela are not particularly heavy. Though I would not have noticed it, the young Latina sitting with me pointed out that some of the most off-hand Spanish lines “a Mexican would say without thinking” are given an almost artificial, even hesitant, intensity. Yet these are only nit-picky things in what is generally a fine, funny and deeply satisfying production.
It looks good, too. David F. Weiner’s evocative set becomes a character all its own, while Abel Alvarado provides exactly the right clothing (and underpinnings) to define each character’s view of themselves, and a splendid splash for the show’s ending scene. The pacing, under director Sueko keeps the necessarily talky piece moving, and develops each character’s individual rhythm.
“Real Women Have Curves” was written by Lopez when she herself was very young. How splendid to see that it still speaks truth to an audience in 2015. Indeed, with the characters’ haunting, almost elemental fear of ICE, their determination to struggle against the assumptions of the powerful, and the balance of older values with the ambitions of the young, makes the piece a timeless window on an essential part of the American story. Not only that, it’s just a lot of fun to watch.
One mild disclaimer: there is a certain amount of stripping down that goes on, and for those who find even fairly innocuous exposure of female undergarments offensive, this one’s not for you.
What: “Real Women Have Curves” When: through October 4, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $87, with premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
July 25, 2015Posted by on
Update: The Pasadena Playhouse has extended the run of this show until August 23.
Just a little over two years ago, a tribute to the woman dubbed The Queen of Rock first appeared at the Pasadena Playhouse. More than just the usual tribute show, what was then called “One Night with Janis Joplin” used an evening of song and conversation with Mary Bridget Davies’ Joplin to explore the roots of her music, her strong ties to traditional blues, and the passion which brought her to toss aside a middle class lifestyle in favor of the short but important life she would have in rock and roll. The show was a solid hit.
Now, after some revision and a trip to Broadway, where Davies was nominated for a Tony, what is now called “A Night with Janis Joplin” has returned to the Playhouse. In some ways the changes have added depth and balance to the show’s storyline and energy. In some others, the focus on Joplin herself has blunted a bit. Still, the end result is one enjoyable trip back to the late 60s, and the melding of musical forms which was so central to that entire period.
Randy Johnson, who wrote this homage and also directs, was specifically concerned with not just creating a classic “tribute band” kind of concert, and that still remains. What has expanded is the look at those blues – and the great performers who sang them – which so inspired Joplin to become a singer herself. In the show’s biggest change, rather than having one person try to be all of those great talents, separate members of the chorus of “Joplinaires” have moments in the sun as Etta James (Jenelle Lyn Randall), Bessie Smith and Odetta (Sylvia MacCalla), a symbolic “blues singer” representing all those lesser known voices from the past (Sharon Catherine Brown), and most especially Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone (Yvette Cason). Plus, all four gather together to be the girl-group Joplin admired, the Chantels.
With all these different and highly talented voices expressing the traditionally African-American roots which shaped Joplin’s own style (though she admits in the script that she only sounds like “a white chick singing the blues”), the structure of the production proves more balanced. Each singer had (and in this show has) her own style and structure, and it becomes a treat to see how each of these influenced specific aspects of both Joplin’s sound and her choice of repertoire.
Of course, central to the whole thing is Davies’ Janis. She looks the part, as she always has, and gives her all to the raspy joy of Joplin’s singing. In the course of the last few years that has morphed a bit. She’s no longer an imitator, with exactly the same sounds as one could find on a recording. Rather, the whole focus on matching Joplin to her influences has let a bit more creativity sneak in. Sometimes lyrics once intelligible get lost in the soaring shouts which express the energy of the moment – a shift which can be exciting or annoying. Sometimes the tune takes second place to spoken observations. Still the magnetism is there, and the feel of Joplin’s music. And there is all that fearsome energy, especially when the first act closer – a duet between Joplin’s Queen of Rock and Aretha’s Queen of Soul – rocks the house in memorable ways.
What “A Night with Janis Joplin” now offers, in ways which were more hinted at the first time through, is a demonstration of musical forces which surrounded her and moved her toward stardom. This is not a biography, except a musical one, and doesn’t touch on the things we all know came with that stardom: the lifestyle and drugs which would lead to her death at the height of both her popularity and her own personal satisfaction with her music. Once again, as with the first version, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Janis Joplin had had a chance to mature as an artist past age 27. But then, one could ask that of many of the most terrific musical talents of that era.
What: A Night with Janis Joplin When: Through August 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $45 – $150 Info: 626-356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org