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It is quite remarkable how many times the Victor Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has been dramatized, in film, on television, and on the stage. Originally written in part to encourage Parisians to appreciate the medieval architecture in their midst, the story has captured the imaginations of generations. This thanks to the drama of that architecture, the general fascination with the colorful life of gypsies, the equal fascination with obsessive and exclusionary religious fervor, and that very peculiar character whose gentle, innocent ugliness has become a metaphor all its own.
Finally, a Disney-produced theatrical has taken the songs and a few fantasy characters from the Disney film, and elements of both the novel and the most popular live action movies, and created a dark and relatively interesting hodgepodge of a musical. Now at the Whittier Community Theatre, it has some true star turns, some interesting quirks, and a couple of stumbles, but has moments worth celebrating.
Director Mark Torreso is also the set designer, and that integration works well, for the most part. Unable, due to the layout of the theater, to have a “pit chorus,” – that is, hidden singers who augment chorus numbers – he has created space for an onstage choir of monks, who look down on the dramatic proceedings when necessary and flesh out the richly dramatic, if startlingly unmemorable, music. This sets the tone for the rest of the work, as the cathedral is ever-present physically even when action takes place outside its doors.
In this atmosphere lives this version of the story, which focuses on the conflict between the self-righteously religious Claude Frollo, who has raised Quasimodo to follow him, and the gypsy Esmeralda, whom Frollo both detests for her beliefs and lusts after in spite of himself. Balanced against this is the returning soldier Phoebus de Martin, whose promotion to captain of the cathedral guards puts him squarely in the center of the conflict, along with Quasimodo, who so appreciates Esmeralda’s warmth toward him that her attraction to Phoebus is painful. And so it goes.
Best of this production is Anthony Michael Frias as Quasimodo. His onstage transformation proves impressive, and his ability to portray a disabled character without ever devolving into caricature makes the show possible. Michelle Chaho makes a charming and tuneful Esmeralda, and Jeff Campbell as Phoebus manages both the devil-may-care playboy and the underlying honorable man well. As the leader of the gypsies, Jason Miramontes exhibits a lightness and panache in what is one of his best performances at WCT.
The puppeteers, who speak and sing for Quasimodo’s friendly gargoyles – Scott Charles Felver, Vanessa Evans, Jasmine Vigil and Scott Silson – make those characters come humorously and connectedly alive. Only WCT veteran Richard De Vicariis seems to struggle with the villainous character of Frollo, particularly when called upon to sing. That, the small and distracting projections, and a way, way too amplified orchestra are really the only awkward elements of the piece.
Be aware that the tale of the “Hunchback” is a dark one. This is not a kiddie show, Disney’s involvement in its creation notwithstanding. There is lust and torment and death, and a rather ferocious condemnation of some religious elements, which, though adapted, are more from Hugo than the adapters. The music advances the storyline well, but you will not go away humming it. Come see what this tale can be like when adapted for stage, but do not expect to leave feeling all is right with the world.
What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. When: through September 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 16. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562)696-0600 or www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
For the second play of their 96th season, the Whittier Community Theatre has chosen the gently comic “The Curious Savage” by John Patrick. In a time when the battle between decency and avarice is played out in the news and on all forms of media on a regular basis, the play itself seems particularly apt. The quietly wry wit of Patrick’s play, and its message to humanity, have kept in relevant even as a few other aspects seem somewhat dated.
The setting is 1950, and an institution called The Cloisters – a home for persons who are wrestling with the balance between their hopes and fears and what the world deems as real. Into this calming but unique community arrives Mrs. Ethel Savage, the widow of a wealthy man. She has been placed in The Cloisters by her three step-children, determined to stop her from frittering away the millions they expect to inherit.
Mrs. Savage, having doted upon her husband from an early age, is now determined not only to act out the silly wishes she kept dormant, but to form a fund to let others do the same: an appallingly crazy concept to the determined trio who have committed her.
In The Cloisters, she encounters five damaged but sincere individuals to whom she listens and with whom she develops a unique rapport. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the step-children do not have her best interests at heart, it is these “inmates”, and the doctor and assistant who attend them, who may be able to rise to the occasion and prove her right to her own desires.
Though the WCT production starts a bit slow, it builds into a very likable piece. As the step-children, Gary Page’s pompous US Senator proves sharp and commanding, Frank McCay’s childish judge has just the right whine, and Elizabeth M. Desloge (despite a somewhat unfortunate wig) makes a most focused money-grubber. Richard De Vicariis, as the presiding doctor, manages one of his best, gently underplayed performances. LIkewise, Amy Miramontes proves warmly humane as the attendant nurturing the institution’s inhabitants.
As for the inhabitants, Janet Arnold-Clark makes sweet work of the woman whose fantasy keeps her dead little boy alive, and Jeffrey Buckner-Rodas, as a man convinced he can play the violin, proves both earnest and charmingly suggestible. Carlos David Lopez unwinds gradually as a man so stricken with survivor’s guilt he carries it into self-image, while Cindy Cisneros gives the young girl desperate to deserve love and attention a quirky gusto. Best of the lot is Julie Breihan’s truly funny Mrs. Paddy, who hates everything with a spectacular sulky look and delivery.
Mrs. Savage herself must, rightly, be filled with an energy which powers her ability to connect with her fellow inhabitants, and defines the drive to circumvent her wastrel stepchildren in order to achieve her dreams. Cindy Beck, a WCT regular in a number of capacities, warms to this gradually, so that her best version of Ethel arrives after the intermission. From then on, she commands the proceedings, creating an atmosphere of warmth, and underscoring the play’s central points.
Mark Frederickson’s set makes good use of Whittier Community Center’s long, slender stage, giving a realism to the piece. Karen Jacobsen’s costumes generally, if not precisely, reflect the period. The ending piece – a picture of what the inmates see when they look in the mirror – proves particularly striking, when it arrives.
Director Lenore Stjerne has a feel for the point and the humor of this play. Indeed, the playwright’s abjuration that the “inmates of The Cloisters be treated with warmth and dignity” is obviously focal to her pacing and structuring of the performances. As a result, what one finds is a contrast between dreamers and takers, between human kindness and self-focus. In the end, this may be the most important thing about going to see “The Curious Savage.” Who actually is a savage provides a pointed finger at what so many have or yearn to become.
As part of their annual Thanksgiving drive, bring a non-perishable food item to the box office and receive a free goodie (they have brownies!) at intermission. All contributions will be donated to the local food bank.
What: “The Curious Savage” When: through November 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 12 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 adults; $12 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), students, and military with ID Info: (565) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
Once upon a time, Damon Runyan was a household word. His stories, with their very specific form of dialogue and wry humor, celebrated the gamblers and chiselers of early 20th Century Broadway in a way nobody else has ever matched. Today, most who know of him at all do so thanks to the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls,” based on two of Runyan’s stories by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and set to music by Frank Loesser.
Now at Whittier Community Theatre, as the first production of their 96th season, “Guys and Dolls” is guaranteed to charm, as always. The songs are always fun, and the storyline is essential urban Americana. At WCT the cast is mostly up to the task of making the show shine, the band, though a bit uneven in timbre, handles the music well, and the flavor of the piece – best called earnest silliness – shows through.
The story follows two paths. In the first, longtime gambling promoter Nathan Detroit searches desperately for a venue for his floating crap game while holding off showgirl Adelaide, who dreams of marriage after 15 years of being Nathan’s fiancé. In the second, Nathan tries to raise funds by betting card sharp Sky Masterson he cannot take Sarah Brown, central figure of the local Save A Soul Mission, to Havana for dinner. What deal will Sky swing to make it happen?
Director Karen Jacobson has assembled a cast of WCT regulars and specific character performers to solid effect. Jason Miramontes makes a comparatively subtle Sky, and handles his songs well, with the exception of the particularly difficult “My Time of Day”. As his challenge, Sgt. Sarah, Ciara D’Anella warms to the part as the show goes on, and at her best sings with considerable charm, particularly on the silly “If I Were a Bell” and “Marry the Man Today.”
Still, the best of this production is the interplay between Nathan and his three minions, and between Nathan and Adelaide. Carlos Lopez gives Detroit the combination of business sense and innocent guile that makes him so endearing. His minions, the three “tinhorns” – Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie (Jay Harbison, Chris Mathews and Richard De Vicariis) – do a very solid job with the show’s signature introductory trio, “Fugue for Tinhorns” and Harbison continues to charm with “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. All three have engaged with their characters in very solid fashion.
Still, the real star of the piece is Mallory Kerwin, who all but steals the show as Adelaide. Her “Adelaide’s Lament” with its silly contention that being matrimonially frustrated can cause head congestion, is as delightfully silly as one could expect, and her consistent and very funny delivery throughout makes even otherwise dry moments in the show entertaining.
Also worthy of note are James Greene as Sarah’s missionary uncle, Greg Stokes and Justin Patrick Murphy as just edgy enough gangsters, and Andy Kresowski as the prowling Lt. Brannigan. The very versatile chorus manage a number street scenes and crowd moments with individuality and style.
Indeed, more than many other musicals, “Guys and Dolls” depends on dancing. Choreographer Emily Turner does what she can with a comparatively motley group of performers, finding ways to keep the musical moments engaging and atmospheric. Musical director Kevin Wiley manages the live musicians in ways which generally enhances the total production.
In short, this “Guys and Dolls” may have a few shaky moments, but the production is earnest and at times quite delightful. The music is among my favorite in the classic Broadway musical canon, and thanks to a few stirling performances it is one of the finer examples of true community theater in the area. And, frankly, you can’t beat the price. Go, sit back, and revel in the fact that any Southern California company has managed to survive for almost a century.
What: “Guys and Dolls” When: through September 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee 2:30 p.m. September 17 Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
The Whittier Community Theatre, now in the midst of its 94th consecutive season, has admittedly had its ups and downs, but when they do something right, they really do it right. Take as prime example their current production of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This deeply touching and absolutely true story of Jewish families hiding from the Nazis in a Dutch attic, as described to her diary by the teenaged Anne, cannot help but be affecting. Now, between casting, pacing and even the set design, WTC has brought the tale to life with an appropriate, clean vividness. As we, this year, mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler, the show proves both instructional and endearing.
The tale is part of the modern psyche. After the liberation of western Europe Anne’s father returned to the attic where he, his family and several others had hidden for three years. Among the things left behind was the diary he had given his younger daughter, Anne, as they entered that attic. An aspiring writer, she dedicated long hours to describing their time there, philosophizing about the human race, and dreaming of a time beyond their self-imposed captivity.
Director Lenore Stjerne has gathered a cast of performers who not only embody the characters in that attic with skill, but look the parts as well. Richard De Vicariis, in perhaps his best role, plays Anne’s father Otto, the group’s central organizer and a man intent on keeping his humanity in the midst of claustrophobic human strife. Patty Rangel is Anne’s mother Edith, domestic and practical and desperately trying to maintain a sense of community.
James J. Cox is the somewhat questionable, bitter friend Otto feels he must pay back by bringing to the attic, while Joan Meissenburg makes interesting work of his materialistic, desperate wife. Tim Heaton gives the hermit-like last-minute addition to the group a petulant angst which helps define the tensions of this captive group. Casey Morlet makes a sympathetic Miep, the young woman who continued to supply the group with basic necessities throughout their isolation. John Francis makes Otto’s employee, and Miep’s partner in secrecy, a fragile but dedicated man.
Fitted in with this are the three young people, who define the specific conflicts of energy, desperation and hope. Wesley Mathews makes the shy, introverted Peter into a careful but deep thinker. Brenna Hanlen gives Anne’s older sister Margot a calm fatalism which provides interesting counter-balance to Anne’s optimism. And, as Anne – narrator of her own story and rich optimist about human nature – Gracie Lacey leads the cast in every possible way.
Thanks to Suzanne Frederickson’s set design, which utilizes the large Whittier stage while still giving a sense of the limited attic space, Stjerne can keep the flow going in such a way that one remains enraptured with the story. This is good, because the play is a long one – the first act an hour and a half – but the general quality means you don’t notice the passage of time. The costumes, created and coordinated by Karen Jacobson, accurately reflect time and place. Indeed, this whole production shows an extraordinary attention to detail, and a respect for the content which makes it a success.
In short, this “The Diary of Anne Frank” is most certainly worth seeing. I would also recommend it for young people who may not have been exposed to the book. Personally, my grandmother gave me a copy when I turned 10, with an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is powerful stuff, and as we reach a stage of history where almost all those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust have passed away, it behooves us to take the time to remind ourselves what they went through. Perhaps such remembrances can mean that one day we will reach a world where genocide itself is a thing of the past. Anne Frank seemed to think we might.
What: “The Diary of Anne Frank” When: Through November 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 15 Where: Whittier Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Blvd. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $12 students/seniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org