Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Tag Archives: Seema Sueko

“The Fantasticks” From a New Angle: Pasadena Playhouse takes a risk

Ashley Park, Alyse Rockett and Conor Guzmán in The Fantasticks at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]

Ashley Park, Alyse Rockett and Conor Guzmán in The Fantasticks at The Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jim Cox Photography]


Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s deceptively simple musical, “The Fantasticks” has achieved a place in theatrical history no other show could match. It opened in a tiny Off-Broadway theater in 1960, and ran there for 42 years, making it the longest running show of any kind anywhere in the world. Indeed, at another venue, it is running in New York again today.

What made it work, from the start? First, the storyline, loosely based on a Rostand comedy, had universal ideas to impart. Second, it had an underscore of wit and sheer silliness which proved endearing to generation after generation. Third, it was very simple in production: 8 actors, an “orchestra” consisting of one piano (or sometimes two) and a harp, a couple of poles to hold up a sign and a paper moon/sun, a ladder and a big trunk, with everything else “created” by a mime.

Now the Pasadena Playhouse has recreated this show, and for a “Fantasticks” purist there is an initial moment of concern. First, there is a set. Second, it becomes essentially a play within a play. And then there are some adaptations to the lyrics (some admittedly very necessary) and to small elements of plot. Yet, frankly, one really needn’t have worried. My advice is to set one’s preconceived notions aside, and dive into director Seema Sueko’s vision.

The set, by David F Weiner, is a dilapidated and abandoned Southern California theater, shut since 1969. There is a sense of disorder which might be attributed to conflict, and that powers the director’s approach of having a troupe of actors break into the space with a need to create art in the midst of chaos. However this is also a specific nod to the Playhouse itself, which shuttered in that year, and at one point nearly became a parking lot. The last production done by what was then the Playhouse’s acting school was “The Fantasticks”.

Once the actors arrive, the beloved musical rises out of pieces of flotsam and scaffolding. And just as other productions have used the ladder and poles, these random bits create in the imagination all the places and spaces needed to tell the story of two fathers who pretend to feud in order to inspire their children to fall in love.

There is the storybook romance, the moonlit tryst, and the many other manipulations the fathers try which eventually begin to fall apart. Then, as the young lovers try to venture into the world on their own, there is the hurt and experience which brings them back to each other with love beyond youthful, starry-eyed romance. There are also the silly or romantic songs, the ridiculous aging actors brought in to help the fathers’ plot, and the wise El Gallo to narrate. There is also the Mute, a dancer/mime.

Philip Anthony-Rodriguez gives El Gallo a slightly dark wisdom, and sings the show’s most famous song, “Try to Remember” with a wistful edge. Regi Davis and especially Gedde Watanabe are a hoot as the two fathers: schemingly well meaning, simple and sure of themselves. Conor Guzman gives Matt, the boy dreaming of romance and adventure, a sureness which plays well with Ashley Park’s charmingly quirky Luisa. All these folk sing well – the young lovers particularly – and the story moves with a natural flow.

Hal Linden shines as Henry, a send-up of all aging actors

Hal Linden shines as Henry, a send-up of all aging actors


Of course, some of the best bits are left for the two aging actors called upon to flesh out various fantasy moments. As Henry, the ancient Shakespearean whose company has disintegrated along with his memory, Hal Linden provides just the right combination of confusion and pomposity. Amir Talai, as Henry’s faithful companion Mortimer, offers up one of the most creative and effective of Mortimer’s supposedly famous death scenes in recent memory.

Yet, there are admittedly a few question marks. Though the adaptation of some song lyrics proves both wise and socially appropriate, and the replacement of cartoonish “Indians’ with “musketeers” works well, the young couple’s eye-opening traverse through the world has been given a arc which may not click with some.

Most especially the exchange of Luisa’s “rose colored glasses” for a gradual metal plating of her head, though symbolic, seems a break with the more lighthearted romantic structure of the piece. Likewise Matt’s misadventures are no longer nearly fantastic and symbolic, but contemporary and severe. Also the Mute, played by Alyse Rockett, leaves off miming at odd moments, like the reconstruction of the fathers’ wall, even though it is consistently referenced in the script.

Even so, this production still embraces the sheer theatricality of allowing one’s imagination to take one all sorts of places you can’t really see. It’s still filled with the same winks at youth and idealism, and at the artificiality of the acting profession itself. The songs still soar, and the intimacy is still surprisingly available, even in the Playhouse auditorium, which is worlds larger than its first setting. For this reason, “The Fantasticks” still delights.

And, in the end, the moral that true love is more than fantasy romance, and that friendship survives best with boundaries, are things we can all still buy into. This is why “The Fantasticks” will probably be on stage somewhere on and on into the future.

What: “The Fantasticks” When: through October 2, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $90, with $135 premium seating 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

Romance, Tragedy, and a Lesson: “Stop Kiss” stuns at the Pasadena Playhouse

Angela Lina and Sharon Leal in

Angela Lin and Sharon Leal in “Stop Kiss” at the Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo by Jim Cox]

There is no greater way to expand the understanding and empathy of people towards those not like themselves than by finding a story which becomes common ground. That’s perhaps the simplest way to “put a face” on an issue which may not otherwise resonate with the majority. That may also be the most important factor in the newest venture at the Pasadena Playhouse.

In Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss,” there are two central themes: the gradual development of a strong relationship that solidifies into love, and a violent act which rips the warmth from that story yet also does much to solidify its definition. The two themes unfold at the same time, allowing the audience to process both violation and relationship in an intertwined, very powerful way.

In essence, the tale is one of Callie, a long-time New Yorker, and the friend-of-a-friend newly moved from St. Louis, Sara. Callie’s social life hangs upon her college relationships, as she surfs a high profile but unsatisfying job and lands the perks of “who you know” as a city-dweller. Sara brings with her an idealism, having received a grant to spend two years teaching 3rd grade in the Bronx, and a sense of forward motion Callie has missed. The two click immediately, becoming fast friends moving slowly but inexorably toward something more. Then, at the moment of transition, their world shatters in a hate crime.

Angela Lin makes a genuine, worldly yet innocent Callie, secure in her world, yet still searching for meaning and connection. Sharon Leal exudes a personal confidence as Sara which, even though counteracted by her initial sense of being a New York outsider, leads to an expansion of both her own and Callie’s view of their worlds.

As Callie’s guy friend and occasional bootie call, John Sloan provides the symbol of her life before the play begins – one lived at arms length from true emotional connection. Brandon Scott, as the young man Sara left behind, provides a view of her own, solidly Midwestern, interconnected roots. Jeff de Serrano offers up the classic detective, hammering for facts and thus making Callie face home truths. Amanda Carlin, though also a hospital nurse, makes the most impact as the witness to the attack who calls police: empathetic but from a distance.

Director Seema Sueko uses David F. Weiner’s easily shifting set pieces to switch back and forth from the charm of a New York apartment to the chill of a street with great swiftness, keeping the pace going and thus the two tensions moving as well. In this play, performed without intermission to also avoid a break in the elemental flow, this proves key. Combine that with the charm, the sheer likability of the two main characters as portrayed, and one simply cannot look away. In the end, the responses of everyone onstage achieve a natural quality which may even be the point, but certainly lets the dramatic endings sync together like a resolved fugue.

“Stop Kiss” was written in 1998. What is both warming and sad about that fact is that the very scenarios described therein could happen today, 16 years later. Some of what is discussed is, for the traditional Playhouse audience, a bit controversial. Yet, that is not at the core of why one should see this lovely piece. Love, trauma, shattered dreams, and new realizations are foundational to many beloved moments in the theater. The themes do not change because the characters are different.

But then, of course, seeing them applied to these characters offers a chance to find that face, albeit a fictional one: that character (or characters) which can humanize an issue, and create the very empathy which brings an understanding and helps a society to move forward. Seems a tall order for a small relationship play, but it could be a start. This especially when the production is as fine, as moving, and as meaningfully intense as the one at Pasadena Playhouse.

What: “Stop Kiss” When: Through November 30, 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: $45 – $75, plus premium seating for $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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