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“Charley’s Aunt” at Whittier: Take an old favorite, add zing, and enjoy

The cast of "Charley's Aunt" at Whittier Community Theatre, in a period-style portrait

The cast of “Charley’s Aunt” at Whittier Community Theatre, in a period-style portrait

Just as with film, some older stage comedies easily stand the test of time. Nobody objects to a new, albeit period, production of “Harvey” or “Arsenic and Old Lace” because they are genuinely funny. The same is true for less-often revived works as well, as long as they are approached as if new – that is, approached with the same zest that performers would give a brand new joke. The rule of thumb is, always, that one cannot expect something with a long reputation of being entertaining to continue to be so without human energy and commitment.

This is hard on less experienced performers or companies, where some performers may let the script drive the show while others are more in charge. Take, as an example, the production of “Charley’s Aunt” at the Whittier Community Theatre. The silly, cross-dressing comedy has been beloved for over 120 years, having originally opened in London in 1892. As such, the wit has the same formality one hears in Oscar Wilde, and comes from the same ethos. Yet, the humor reaches the audience through emotional connection and vitality in the playing of it. At Whittier, this verve is unevenly present. A little charging up of a few characters is almost all that is needed for the piece to shine.

The story has a good foundation for humor. Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham, two Oxford undergrads, have fallen in love. The objects of their affection, Kitty and Amy, are the niece and ward of a stuffy solicitor who would never see his way to letting the girls be alone with two college men. Fortunately, on the date they hope to meet for lunch, Charley’s benefactor and aunt – whom he has never met – is due to arrive. Then she doesn’t.

To keep the tryst from dissolving, the boys talk fellow student Lord Fancourt Babberley into dressing up as an old woman and playing the wealthy, widowed aunt. The plot thickens as the solicitor, as well as Jack’s father, both make plays for the elderly woman in order to solidify their fortunes. And then, of course, a very aunt-like woman arrives with her own ward in tow.

Let’s face it, a guy dressed up as a woman but wanting to be a guy is just funny. Kieran Flanagan, as the increasingly reluctant Lord Babberley is absolutely the best thing in the WCT production, in part because he has all the best bits. Andrew Cerecedes, as Charley, does frustration and panic very well, and Austin Sauer, as Jack, certainly looks the part of an Oxford man, though he sometimes needs to evince a bit more excitement.

Anthony Duke does well as Jack’s proud but somewhat impoverished father. Tim Heaton plays the solicitor as such a dunderhead it all ends up in a comic “sameness.” Jim Gittelson as Jack’s “scout” or in-house servant should be tying everything together with lively commentary about his betters, but instead sometimes slows the action down with his formality. Nancy Tyler as the mysterious arrival, brings the speed back up, and Jasmine West, Amanda Riisager and Louisa Brazeau play the sweet innocent young ladies to the hilt.

Which is all to say that, at its core, this is a fine production. It just needs a little juice. Tightening and energy will bring it back to the level people have been laughing at all these years. Director Roxanne Barker has a long history in community theater, and knows how to make that happen, but needs to make certain that it does.

One possible issue, at the start, has to do with the set, whose design is uncredited in the program. The standard housing of an Oxford man at that time would have been comparatively cramped, but in a noble attempt to create a set allowing a series of very quick changes, Jack’s is vast – and the humor to be gained with a small space full of panicky young men is lost. On the other hand, the set’s two other aspects work well with the script, so perhaps that is the gain to this particular loss. In a positive note, a strong nod goes to Lois Tedrow who once again supplies a host of reasonably period costuming.

In the end, “Charley’s Aunt” is long for a modern theater-going audience, but the WCT production is often quite engaging. A bit more zip and the evening will fly by. In general, it is good to see a play which has been so loved for so long up on its feet again. And that may be one of the purposes of a place like Whittier Community Theatre – itself the oldest continually operating community theatrical group west of the Mississippi River.

In that vein, one must also tender respect for WCT’s recent loss. Deac Hunter, who was busily playing supporting roles onstage as recently as this season, passed away in March at age 92. A longtime WCT member, he was the kind of person community theater is built on. If you go to the performance, look for a lovely remembrance in the program. Even as just an audience member, I will miss him.

What: “Charley’s Aunt” When: Remaining performances 8 p.m. June 13 and 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, juniors, and those with military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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Whittier Community Theater’s “On Golden Pond”: High marks for not being “like the movie”

The cast of Whittier Community Theater's fine, if brief run of "On Golden Pond."

The cast of Whittier Community Theater’s fine, if brief run of “On Golden Pond.”

When signature performances appear on screen, even if they are recreating roles from the stage, those performances can become a huge barrier to creativity among stage productions which follow. Even reviewers can fall victim, including the former editor of mine who condemned a brilliant new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” because the show’s lead didn’t deliver the lines as Elizabeth Taylor had.

It’s especially tough on community or semi-professional companies, where the easy fallback position for a director is sometimes to “do it like the movie.” This is why the recent production of “On Golden Pond” at Whittier Community Theater, which closed this past weekend, proved so refreshing. Each character was well-defined and well played, in a show with pacing which kept it interesting, often funny, and as touching as it should be. And nobody was “being” Henry or Jane Fonda, or Katharine Hepburn.

The tale of an aging, intellectually interesting couple at their summer cabin on the lake creates a particular opportunity for older actors to sink their teeth into characters outside the typical. Indeed, at Whittier, Eric Nelson created the essential Norman Thayer, crusty and morose with a soft underside he keeps well hidden. You can’t help but like him, just a bit – a necessity for the plot to move forward, but trickier to accomplish that one imagines.

Roxanne Barker, as Norman’s wife Ethel, created one of the finer performances of her recent career – precise, with an underlying warmth, but underplayed to match the mood of the play. Elizabeth Lauritsen’s version of their angsty, damaged adult daughter gave a well-examined view of a woman gradually righting her own ship, and Ronan Walsh pegged the preteen boy Norman warms to, making that relationship’s growth seem absolutely natural.

Andy Kresowski managed to avoid stereotype as the local guy once enamored of the Thayer daughter, making him far more genuine and less dim than sometimes portrayed. In a brief but important moment, Dave Edwards created a convincingly nervous yet resolute version of the man helping sort out the daughter’s life.

Kudos also to the set design of Mark Fredrickson, whose cabin proved so convincing you expected birds to fly by the windows. Yet, the feel of the entire production, from the ensemble spirit, through the unique renditions of characters made iconic on film, to the whole tone of subtle upbeat land at the feet of director Roxie Lee. Again, this is one of her finer moments, as it is for many in the small cast.

“On Golden Pond” can be sentimental bordering on goopy if done poorly. The Whittier production tread that fine line well. As one of the few remaining viable community theaters, now in its 92nd season no less, it bodes well for the future that this quality of performance can be expected there.

Next on the Whittier Community Theater list is the noir classic – also a famous film – “Laura,” due to open on Valentine’s Day. One hopes that they can keep going with this “new view of old classic” style, making that piece as much their own as they did “On Golden Pond.”

“All My Sons” in Whittier: Community theater tackles a classic

The cast of "All My Sons" at Whittier Community Theatre

The cast of “All My Sons” at Whittier Community Theatre

For many, both in theatrical and literary circles, Arthur Miller stands out as the greatest American playwright of the 20th Century. His plays used classical forms and modern references to examine universal themes of contemporary morality, from the empty ideals of a Willie Loman, the rushes to judgement represented by the Salem Witch Trials, or the choices of the powerless in Nazi Germany.

In one of his first, and most powerful plays, “All My Sons” the battle – still very present today – between free enterprise and ethical responsibility wrenches apart that most sacred of American icons, the nuclear family.

In a new production at Whittier Community Theatre, much of the power of this classic play is on display. The direction is intelligent and the pacing keeps the passions moving. Most of the actors are up to the task. It all adds up to a fairly pleasant revisit with this great work.

We are at the home of Joe Keller, a small town Midwestern manufacturer who both made and marred his fortunes during World War II – a war in which his elder son died. He was imprisoned along with his business partner for selling defective parts to the Air Corps, resulting in the deaths of pilots. He was freed, his partner is still jailed, his boy is dead, and his second son appears to be romancing his partner’s daughter. Worst, his wife will not give up the idea that some day their older son will return.

Richard Large and Candy Beck as Joe and Kate, the troubled couple central to "All My Sons"

Richard Large and Candy Beck as Joe and Kate, the troubled couple central to “All My Sons”

Richard Large slides easily into the character of Joe, full of a friendly, but overly hearty bluster. As his troubled wife, Kate, Candy Beck hits just the right balance between motherliness and deep, abiding sadness. Justin Patrick Murphy shines as the stalwart and straightforward Chris, the younger brother – a seeker in his own right, torn between his parents’ legacy and his love for his girl.

As the equally torn love interest, Ann, Alexandra Ozeri moves with the appropriate combination of nervousness and excitement. Unfortunately, her understanding of vocal projection leads her to make her voice very shrill. This makes her a bit less sympathetic and a bit harder to listen to as the show progresses.

Norman Dostal makes a brief but vibratingly emotional appearance as Ann’s lawyer brother, fresh from a visit to their imprisoned father. Todd Rew has several very telling moments as the young and idealistic doctor. Shannon Fuller balances him well as his extremely practical, moderately bitter wife. Ernie Rivera and Casey Morlet have fun as the somewhat blissful and innocent young couple down the street, while John Noah Molina supplies the neighborhood kid Joe encourages to be law-abiding to a fault.

Director Roxanne Barker has a real feel for this kind of material. She keeps the pace flowing and gives the characters enough to do to keep the whole thing from devolving into a debate. The set, by Suzanne Frederickson, evokes the kind of Midwestern yard and house which create the normalcy in this disquieting tale. Karen Jacobson handles the props and costumes, and opts either for the vaguely or specifically period, though one wonders why almost all the men’s pants are a bit short.

Still, this is a lively production – particularly polished for a community group. The group itself is worth mentioning. As they barrel through their 91st season they are probably the oldest continuously operating theatrical company in the greater Los Angeles area. That’s worthy of note, all by itself.

What: “All My Sons” When: through March 3, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students/military Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

I’ll Be Loving You… Always? – A charming “Blithe Spirit” in Whittier

The cast of “Blithe Spirit” holds a seance with surprising results at WTC

Of all the plays Noel Coward wrote in a long and storied career, “Blithe Spirit” may be the most fun. As always, a toss-up of society norms, it offers up a clever mix of mysticism, human foibles, misunderstandings and outrage, with a little class consciousness thrown in for good measure. Never quite slapstick, never too deep to be laughable, it offers up truly fun parts for actors to move into, and guaranteed laughs.

As proof take in the new, and quite polished production at Whittier Community Theatre. There this company shows off all its best stuff, from a delightfully appropriate set to the comic timing so necessary in a piece like this one.

The story begins innocently enough. Writer Charles Condomine lives with his second wife, Ruth, in a lovely country house. As part of research for his new book, he invites a local woman with a long history as a medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a seance at his house. She proves to be quite a character, entertaining both the Condomines and their equally skeptical friends the Bradmans as she warms up for the deed itself. Still nobody, not even the new and rather awkward maid, could be prepared for what Madame Arcati conjures up.

Director Roxanne Barker has gathered together a highly polished cast, and has a tight understanding of comic timing. As a result, this thing hums along from laugh to laugh with a deceptive effortlessness.

Norman Dostal proves impressive as the rather quickly nonplussed Charles. Combined with the equally sharp renditions of Shannon Fuller as Ruth and Andrea Stradling as the seance’s surprise, the central comedy hums like a top. It’s a delight to watch. Lauri Boehlert finds the balance in Madame Arcati, making her a bit outrageous but serious about her craft, and avoiding the temptation toward buffoonery which often weakens the part. It is Arcati’s very earnestness which cements the humor – a much more satisfying outcome.

Richard De Vicariis and Patty Rangel, as Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, also play it straight, becoming charming witnesses to the increasingly unpredictable Condomine household. Julie Kirkman has a ball with the inept country girl trying to quell her impulse to dash everywhere – the Condomine’s new maid.

Kudos to set designer Suzanne Frederickson for making really terrific use of the Whittier Community Center stage, and creating a convincing country house. Nods also to Karen Jacobson and Shon LeBlanc for period- and character-appropriate costumes.

Indeed, the only troubling thing about this production had to do with the microphones they have place to carry the voices of the actors when they are upstage. They ring hollow, and seem cranked up a bit too high, bringing artificiality to an otherwise neatly polished production.

“Blithe Spirit” is just fun, and this is a good version. Also entertaining is the music between scenes, all of it music of Noel Coward’s, and some of it even sung by him. How much more in the spirit of the thing can you get?

What: “Blithe Spirit” When: Through June 16, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students Info: (562) 696-0600 or ww.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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