Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Pasadena Playhouse

The Originalist: A Spin on Scalia at the Pasadena Playhouse

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

Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Madwoman…” Embraces the Midlife Crisis

Caroline Aaron, Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in Madwoman In The Volvo at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Caroline Aaron, Sandra Tsing Loh and Shannon Holt in Madwoman In The Volvo at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

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

“Casa Valentina” at the Pasadena Playhouse: Educating an audience in fascinating style

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

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.

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

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

The Freedom to “Fly” – Tuskegee Airmen celebrated, as only stagecraft can, in Pasadena

Desmond Newson, Damian Thompson, Omar Edwards, Terrell Wheeler and Brooks Brantly in "FLY" at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Desmond Newson, Damian Thompson, Omar Edwards, Terrell Wheeler and Brooks Brantly in “FLY” at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

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

“Breaking Through” – Strong Production, Cliche Story at Pasadena Playhouse

Nita Whitaker, Alison Luff, Teya Patt in BREAKING THROUGH. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Nita Whitaker, Alison Luff, Teya Patt in BREAKING THROUGH. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

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

Women’s World: “Real Women Have Curves” returns to the stage in Pasadena

Santana Dempsey, Cristina Frias and Blanca Araceli in

Santana Dempsey, Cristina Frias and Blanca Araceli in “Real Women Have Curves”. [Photo: Philicia Endelman]

Theater’s greatest purpose, above and beyond the poetry, the pathos, or even the sense of artfulness, has to be the role of holding a mirror up to society. Sometimes this mirror reflect’s an observer’s own experience. Sometimes it reflects a world much of the audience would not otherwise see in such a visceral way. This window can create an almost subliminal path to empathy and understanding in a way any less immediate art form may not.

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

Another Little Piece of Joplin: Reworked “Night” returns to the Playhouse

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Tony-nominee Mary Bridget Davies & Company. [Photo: Joan Marcus]

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

Looking Back Artfully: “Waterfall” makes classic forms new again

Bie Sukrit and the ensemble celebrate the cultural traditions of Siam in "Waterfall" [photo: Jim Cox]

Bie Sukrit and the ensemble celebrate the cultural traditions of Siam in “Waterfall” [photo: Jim Cox]


Any time a musical looks back in time, and involves a romance between an English speaking foreigner and a native of a country in Asia, the parallels begin to pop into one’s head: “Sayonara” and its tragic love story, “Madame Butterfly” and its tragic love story, and the like. So perhaps the first thing which must be said about Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s “Waterfall,” the new musical at the Pasadena Playhouse is that, three-hankie ending though it may have, the story-line proves significantly more nuanced. It could have been pure melodrama, but at important moments chooses not to go there.

Placed on one of the more imaginative, fluid sets theater can offer, the deeply episodic “Waterfall” offers up lush music, thoughtful lyrics, and a storyline gifted with just enough cultural insight and edge-of-your-seat tension to avoid slipping into the maudlin. Its characters are well drawn, though in some cases this is as much about the artfulness of the performance as of the script. The event is a visual treat, and in the end offers not just a satisfyingly adult romance, but a view of the conflict and coexistence of western and Asian culture from a distinctly Asian lens.

The story revolves around the tensions of the late 1930s, just as the Japanese rise is beginning to look dangerous for its neighbors. Noppon, a Thai student who dreams of America, is studying in Japan. When he is delegated to escort a much-venerated senior Thai diplomat and his American wife, arrived for negotiations with the Japanese government, he finds himself smitten with Katherine, the wife. Surrounded by the tensions of the rise of empire, their story plays out in predictable and then less predictable ways. The ending is, in its own way, a study of the human spirit and what motivates people to move into an understanding of themselves.

Emily Padgett and Bie Sukrit. [photo:  Jim Cox]

Emily Padgett and Bie Sukrit. [photo: Jim Cox]


Bie Sukrit is Noppon, taking him from youthful excitement to steady adulthood with heart and a certain genuine quality which makes him particularly endearing. Emily Padgett creates in Katherine, a woman thrown into a culture beyond her experience, a careful combination of enthusiastic tourist and wistfully aware outsider. Both sing well, and connect with an intensity which powers the rest of the piece. As Katherine’s aging, cautious diplomat husband, Thom Sesma provides an anchored balance to Noppon’s youthful enthusiasm – an image of both maturity and roundedness not without its own aura of romance.

Also standouts in the large and mostly ensemble cast are Lisa Helmi Johanson, most memorable as the buoyant Japanese-American young woman caught between two worlds, neither of which will accept her as she is, and Jordan De Leon and Colin Miyamoto, who prove delightfully silly and youthfully fatalistic as Noppon’s two school friends. Perhaps the finest example of creating a character much more fascinating than the script comes from J. Elaine Marcos, as the diplomat’s longtime family servant. A look, even the twitch of an eyebrow, adds volumes to what she is to actually say to the other characters, and helps underscore the impact of a swiftly changing society.

In all of this, and with the aide of an impressive singing and dancing ensemble who become everything from traditional Thai ballet dancers to Japanese soldiers in formation to guests waltzing at an embassy ball, the underlying theme is one of the Asian view of the world. The wrenching “America Will Break Your Heart” underscores the prejudice and rejection facing anyone of Asian descent in the US in the first half of the 20th Century. The sly “I Like Americans,” sung by a Japanese official, offers up a view of the west as boorish, underscoring the American proclivity (both then and, sometimes, now) to be unaware or uncaring about the traditions of others. And yet, there is also plenty of invective to go around between Asian nations in a time frame of advancing imperialism closer to home.

To a great extent, and beyond Maltby’s articulate book and lyrics, the even-handedness of this piece can be laid at the feet of co-directors Tak Viravan and Dan Knechtges – who also choreographs – and is emphasized by the multi-national nature of the production itself. Sasavat Busayabandh’s set takes as its inspiration the watercolor of a Japanese waterfall which proves central to the storyline, and turns embassies, venerated Thai monuments and Japanese peaks into a series of paper canvases, aided by Caite Hevner Kemp’s evocative projections. The flow of torn paper takes us from place to place with a seamless quality which never allows the story to lag. Shire’s music is beautiful, often evocative, and thematically ties all the bits together as thoroughly as the set does.

Indeed, this is what makes this particular production of this particular musical stand out the most: it’s woven together so well. There are no dead spots, and the musical and visual themes which run like ribbons through the storyline keep momentum and direction flowing so elementally that one is surprised when it comes to an end. It seems so soon.

So yes, this is a romantic tale, but it goes back to the roots of the modern American musical in a way some others of recent note have not: it supplies a romantic base, but uses it to say things much larger about human nature and human connection, and about culture and society. In this it is less like those romantic tragedies mentioned above, and more like “South Pacific.” If the ending is not storybook, neither is the story. Still, in that more carefully human approach, there is enough pathos and joy to provide quite a hook. Indeed, the night I saw it the audible sniffling all around me as it closed said a great deal more than the applause about audience connection.

So there you have it. Go be one of the first to see “Waterfall.” You will be glad you did. I cannot believe this musical will not be going places in a big way.

What: “Waterfall” When: Through June 28, 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: $30-$87, plus premium seating at $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

“Pygmalion” at the Playhouse – A Master’s Masterpiece Shines

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse's "Pygmalion" [photo: Jim Cox]

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse’s “Pygmalion” [photo: Jim Cox]


It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.

Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.

Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.

Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.

Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.

In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.

What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 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: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Poetic, Surreal Tribute to an Icon: “Properties of Silence” upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse

Properties of Silence - Upstairs at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre

Properties of Silence – Upstairs at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre


The venerable About Productions, a company devoted to creating original interdisciplinary theater, and educational programs to go with them, is celebrating its 26th anniversary by bringing back favorite productions from their past. One of these, the brief, somewhat surreal salute to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, “Properties of Silence,” has been revived at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, accompanied by a salon series of post-production events.

The play itself can best be categorized by saying that it is to theater what a Frieda Kahlo painting is to art: representational to a point, then enhanced with the surreal quality of dreams, portents and symbolism. By Theresa Chavez, who directs, Alan Pulner, and Rose Portillo, who portrays Sor Juana, the play meshes the story of the famed scientist-nun with that of a modern real estate saleswoman in Arizona drifting into new realizations about her life with her swimming pool contractor husband. But that’s really just the representational layer.

Sor Juana, a 17th Century Mexican nun whose choice of the convent was more about the chance to remain single and to study than about faith, became known internationally for her plays and poetry, but also for her scientific experiments and her vast collection of books. Yet, in the end, the church hierarchy was not comfortable with a nun – a woman – achieving this kind of temporal notoriety and she was shut down. For this play, based philosophically upon two of her writings, we examine the changes of life which provide equal shifts in self-definition. This is then brought to modern times.

Portillo gives Sor Juana an elemental internal calm, which works as counterbalance to the upheavals of the modern couple. As Barbara, whose discovery that she has followed an unfamiliar path at the end of a familiar day signals a major emotional shift, Elizabeth Rainey literally and figuratively peels the layers from her normal existence until she begins to resonate with Sor Juana’s search for meaning. Kevin Sifuentes, playing both the dominant, success-oriented pool contractor and the voice of church authority, becomes that contrary male image in the face of female self-discovery. His performance is solid, marred only on occasion by the necessity to be a quick-change artist.

The underlying structure of the play addresses that moment when one’s life shifts dramatically, but sometimes in unseen ways. The use of ancient philosophical statements, especially Heraclitus’ “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man,” guide the piece into larger statements about growth, change, and the finding of oneself. All of this is done with impressive rapidity, as the show comes in at just under an hour.

Director Chavez has a handle upon the dreamlike quality of this thing, making walls blur and time periods mesh as only dreams can. Then, as it ends – and after a brief intermission – one can mesh one’s feel for the material of the play with one of the many addendums provided afterward, from poetry readings by local published authors to discussions with various members of the creative team, depending on the day.

“Properties of Silence” is fascinating to gradually unravel. Just be aware that the unraveling is necessary, just as much as it would be looking at one of the more profoundly odd Freda Kahlo paintings.

What: “Properties of Silence” When: Through March 29, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, with a special benefit performance on March 8 Where: The Carrie Hamilton Theatre at The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 general, $15 students with ID, $60 for all patrons for the March 8 benefit Info: (626) 396-0920 or http://www.aboutpd.org

%d bloggers like this: