Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Roxie Lee

Weirdly Fascinating: “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre

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Jessica Taylor Gable and Jason Cook as the soon-to-be-starcrossed lovers of “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre [photo: Amy Lauren Gettys]

In a time when so many of the old community theatre companies have disappeared, Whittier’s is remarkable, having opened the second of four shows constituting its 97th straight season. The new production, Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss,” is hardly your typical community theater show, but then Whittier has been doing a lot of bending that image lately.

The tale follows the whirlwind romance of Peter and the often pessimistic Rita up to a wedding which, thanks to the appearance of an unknown elderly man, sets their story on an odd trajectory. Is Rita still Rita, or has there been some kind of exchange between Rita and the unknown man? If so, now what?

Jason Cook is  Peter, the boy in this boy-meets-girl fairy story. As such he becomes both protagonist and narrator, and is largely responsible for not only the tone but the tempo of the piece. It takes him a bit of time to warm to this, but once in full swing, he proves as nonplussed and yet desperately hopeful as one could wish. As Rita, Jessica Taylor Gable makes a good foil for Peter’s casual optimism, and switches gears well as the tale becomes more convoluted. In the second half, as more is revealed and things get weirder, both hit their stride in ways which propel the story and capture the audience’s focus.

Also worthy of note are Jose Barajas as Peter’s longtime and rather bland friend, and Nancy Tyler, particularly when playing the elderly man’s concerned daughter. Loriston Scott has some solid moments as a bartender, and Kathryn Hunter and Gary Page make real characters out of Rita’s quirky parents.

Still, it is as that elderly man that Lewis Crouse often nearly steals the show. He manages to balance the weird internal struggles of this dual person, while connecting with the two principals in very interesting ways.

Director Roxie Lee has a sense of what can make this production work and has created real connection between the characters. It all works, with one major exception. In also designing what set there is – mostly furniture which can be moved quickly on and offstage, she has neglected the fact that the stage of The Center Theatre, where they perform, is really quite large. The space defeats the innate intimacy of this piece. Narrowing the entire area would do the show great service, and perk up the first half which is broken too much by the episodic pauses for furniture shuffling.

Still, especially in the second half, “Prelude to a Kiss” proves amusing with an undercurrent of great heart. One word of warning, though. Unlike most community theater fare it has references to sexual fantasies and intimacy which may make it unsuitable for younger children, and those who would be offended by such elements.

Still, it’s worth taking a look, and celebrating a theater which may easily be the longest-running company in Southern California.

What: “Prelude to a Kiss”  When: through November 17, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a Sunday matinee 2:30 November 11  Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier  How Much: $18 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID  Info: (562) 696-0600 or whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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“Beauty and the Beast” in Whittier – Great for kids

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in "Beauty and the Beast" [photo: Avis Photography]

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in “Beauty and the Beast” [photo: Avis Photography]

Whittier Community Theatre always tackles an ambitious collection of productions, and their 95th season opener is no exception. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” requires a sizable cast, a lot of costumes, and several characters who must be both excellent singers and the embodiment of various archetypes. The show also demands multiple sets, quick changes, a credible orchestra, and attractive choreography. It’s a tall order for a community group to come up with, so it is no shame to admit that there are both hits and a few misses in the WCT production.

The tale is, as the song says, “as old as time” and a consistent morality lesson. Belle is a beautiful, bookish young woman who is an oddity in her provincial French village, as is her inventor father. While the boorish local he-man, Gaston, plots to wed her, Belle sets off to find her father who has disappeared in the forest. There, she encounters an enchanted castle and a brutish beast, and trades her freedom for her father’s. While Gaston works his wiles at home, she becomes increasingly friendly with a beast who turns out to be shy, terrified, and unschooled in either behavior or learning.

The best of the WCT production is Lencia Kebede’s Belle. Beautiful, and gifted with a soaring voice, she embodies the fire, strength and charm the character must have. As the Beast, Gabriel Borjon is subjected to a combination of staging and mic problems which make many of his calmer lines tough to hear, but sings reasonably well and bellows with authority. Fortunately, their chemistry works well, centering the production on their developing romance.

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

Chad Adriano stumps about with appropriate boorishness as Gaston, though much of his charm is implied by the fine performances of his adoring “silly girls”: Jennifer Bales, Mallory Staley, and Meghan Duran. Cesar Carbajal accents this with a very, very good version of Gaston’s minion, LeFou. Still the show is often best served by Eric Cajiuat’s delightful candlestick, Lumiere, John Scoggins’ stuffy, practical clock, Cogsworth, and – particularly when it comes to vocals – Monika Pena’s duster, Babette.

Janet Arnold-Clark overcomes a kind of lopsided costume as the cook and teapot, Mrs. Potts, while Kassius Lake becomes an earnest Chip, her teacup son. Amanda Benjamin holds her own as the wardrobe, Mme. La Grande Bouche. As Belle’s anxious father, Mark Rainey has some fine moments, particularly in tandem with Kebede, while Mark Rosier manages a truly sinister feel as the asylum owner D’Arque. All these are surrounded by an ensemble which rises to the occasion, particularly in the second half’s castle vs village battle, in ways which are both cute and engaging.

Roxie Lee directs with an experienced hand, using the Whittier’s Center Theater stage effectively. The tale is very episodic, particularly at first, and – even with Lee’s necessarily minimalist village sets – seems to take a while to get its rhythm going. When it does, particularly in the second half when Rebecca Schroeder’s choreography has its greatest effect, things sparkle quite a bit. The small orchestra, under Brian Murphy’s steady hand, provides real quality, though sometimes the sheer volume begins to drown out those onstage – another possible mic problem to be overcome.

Still, if you want to see true stage magic, watch the glow in the eyes of the children in the audience. Perhaps the sweetest element of opening night was watching a very little girl in a Belle dress having her photo taken after the show with Kebede, who had crouched down in the signature ball gown to the child’s height. So much happiness there, and what a lovely introduction for that child to the power of live theater.

What: “Beauty and the Beast” When: through September 24, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

The Pajama Game in Whittier – Kinder/Gentler Management vs Union

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The musicals of the post-WWII years can be a fascinating window on American society at the time. Suspiciously anti-social rock stars were followed by swooning teens and made household words by Ed Sullivan. Corporations were endemic, and the fodder for satire. Unions were virtuous, not to mention victorious when fighting unreasonable management.

That last, of course, was best exemplified in the charmingly silly musical “The Pajama Game,” now enjoying a brief but spirited revival at the Whittier Community Theatre. I have a personal fondness for the show, though I know it is now seen as somewhat obscure. Still, even if it isn’t familiar to you, the score probably is, featuring hits like “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Steam Heat.”

The story is simple enough: Sid, a young and handsome factory supervisor who’s new in town, falls for Babe, the head of the union’s grievance committee. As a strike nears, their romance runs into conflict with the management-union struggles of the pajama factory where they both work. Other office workers dabble in romance, rage with jealousy, or just look on with wry amusement.

Amy and Jason Miramontes (who are married) play lovers Babe and Sid

Amy and Jason Miramontes (who are married) play lovers Babe and Sid

At Whittier, this “Pajama Game” has much to recommend it, even if there are a few weak spots. Amy Miramontes is charming as Babe, with an aura of worldly-wise sophistication and a charming voice. As Sid, Jason Miramontes (Amy’s husband) proves handsome and energetic, creating a charming version of this often rather wooden character, though he needs to work just a bit on pitch when he sings. Beyond the leads, the standout, if brief, performance has to be Eric Nelson as Babe’s tolerant,. charmingly uncomplicated Pop.

Other performers worthy of particular note are Tina Quick-Snedaker as Sid’s wise and motherly secretary, Justin Patrick Murphy as the lascivious union Prez, Greg Stokes as the wildly emotional time-study man Heinzie, and Jeri Harms as the intense, sensual corporate secretary Gladys – over whom Heinzie hovers. Isabella Ramirez, Becca Schroeder and Jennifer Bales do a reasonably Bob Fosse-style “Steam Heat” – the particular triumph of Schroeder’s choreography.

Indeed, the entire cast proves likable, even if there are moments of varying skill.

Director Roxie Lee has taken this episodic tale and kept the pacing moving, thanks in part to her self-designed, minimalist set. She keeps the characters earnest and well connected to each other, which adds to the flow. Musical director Brian Murphy succeeds in celebrating the sheer tunefulness of this show, including putting together a solid orchestra. Karen Jacobson gets a major nod for managing convincingly period costuming on a community theatre budget.

In short, “The Pajama Game” is a window on another time and another ethos. It is tuneful and endearing, and lets a younger generation know that those old folks weren’t quite as pure as it may seem. And it’s fun. You will easily find yourself humming the tunes as you leave, and wondering what happened to the whole universe in which this little tale takes place.

What: “The Pajama Game” When: Through September 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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.”

Golf as Farce: The Fox on the Fairway dashes into Whittier Community Theatre

Lewis Crouse and Roxie Lee, anxious for the outcome of "The Fox on the Fairway" at WTC

Lewis Crouse and Roxie Lee, anxious for the outcome of “The Fox on the Fairway” at WTC

Farce is an art form all its own. It demands a particular kind of rhythm, both from the performers and from the playwright. Ken Ludwig may be the best known farce-writer in America. His “Lend Me a Tenor” has become the gold standard of this kind of airy fluff. Now, at the Whittier Community Theatre, another of Ludwig’s silly pieces, The Fox on the Fairway,” offers up laughter, pratfalls and comic mayhem once again.

And once again, timing is everything. Fortunately, at WTC, the cast is – for the most part – up to the challenge. The play may not be quite as hysterical as “Tenor,” but it offers up plenty of laughs, snickers and a whole lot of golf humor. If you’ve got a golfer in the house, and want a laugh, this may be for you.

The plot – such as it is – is fairly simple. It is the day of the annual grudge-match golf tournament between Quail Valley Country Club and their arch-nemesis, Crouching Squirrel Golf and Racquet Club. Quail Valley manager Henry Bingham is sure he finally (after five years of losing) makes an unwise bet with his rival’s manager, only to find that his best player has defected to the other club. He thinks he is saved when he discovers that his new assistant, Justin, is an extraordinary golfer. The problem is Justin only plays well when not upset, something which may prove trickier than Henry thought.

Director John Francis has assembled a fine cast for this affair. Justin Patrick Murphy does everything but chew the scenery as the easily rattled Justin. MacKenzie Rae Campbell creates a delightfully volatile airhead as Justin’s fiance – the major cause of his upset. Lewis Crouse powers the piece as Henry – part bully, and part panicked investor. Greg Stokes, as the scheming head of the other club, really is as obnoxious and snotty as the character has to be.

MacKenzie Rae Campbell and Justin Patrick Murphy as the humorously volatile lovers at WTC

MacKenzie Rae Campbell and Justin Patrick Murphy as the humorously volatile lovers at WTC

Roxie Lee, as a club board member, and Toni Beckman as Bingham’s domineering wife, both have wonderful moments. However they both need to work on projection. Some of their funniest lines are quite hard to hear. Vincent Rodriguez – a young man for whom this show is a high school senior project – makes a fine tournament announcer, having also helped bring this production into being.

A nod must also go to Suzanne Frederickson for coming up with the perfect set for this kind of show, even if one of the swinging doors came loose due to all the slamming back and forth. Karen Jacobson must have had a ball with the costuming: finding all the truly obnoxious golf sweaters for Stokes’ character.

Indeed, there is a real sense of polish to this essentially amateur production. The sound effects are just right. The costuming is pretty much right. The set is created with farce in mind. The characters are well defined, and create the kind of ensemble which makes this particular kind of ridiculousness work. As with all of Ludwig’s plays, the humor builds: the crazy really comes out in the second half, so wait for it.

Try to catch this while you can. Sadly, WTC productions only last a couple of weekends – a part of their 92-year tradition.

What: “The Fox on the Fairway” When: Through June 15, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/children, $8 students/active military Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whitttiercommunitytheatre.org

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