Stage Struck Review

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Tag Archives: Sheldon Epps

“Kiss Me Kate” at Pasadena Playhouse: an old friend, a new spin

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in

Wayne Brady and Merle Dandridge star in “Kiss Me Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Earl Gibson III]

The story of “Kiss Me Kate” has always been worthy of note. The first winner of a Tony for Best Musical, it was the surprise come-back victory for Cole Porter, and his most successful creation in a lifetime of writing songs for the theater. Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, and inspired by famed 1930s productions adapting familiar shows to an African American cast, director Sheldon Epps has taken this backstage musical in a similar direction.

For the most part, this offers up a freshness, making a wittily familiar favorite something one can see through a new lens. Still, there is some unevenness to tighten up before it has all of the impact one could wish.

The essential story looks at a theater company about to start their out-of-town try-out of a new musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The director, producer and star is a famed and rather pompous actor named Fred who has recruited the equally famous wife he divorced a year before to play Katherine, the female lead. Thus the edgy relationship between their characters onstage is reflected in an equal edginess offstage, with comic results. Meanwhile the secondary female, playing Bianca, hangs all over Fred while stringing along her longtime partner, whose gambling habit is about to get everyone in trouble.

Beginning with the blues/gospel styling of the iconic “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the audience knows this production is going to be challenging its expectations. Jenelle Lynn Randall, as the leading lady’s dresser, grabs attention from the very first note. Merle Dandridge, as the obstinate Katherine, lives up to the romantic yet commanding part of the spurned lover ready for change, and sings the great “So In Love” from deep in her soul.

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer  [Photo: Earl Gibson III]

(l-r) Jay Donnell, Eric B. Anthony, Joanna A. Jones and Terrance Spencer [Photo: Earl Gibson III]

Joanna A. Jones makes a deliciously wicked Bianca, delighted in her own sexuality, while, as her partner, Terrance Spencer’s gee-whiz charm and muscular dancing make that couple’s moments on stage among the most entertaining. Also impressive as a dancer is Rogelio Douglas, Jr., whose “Too Darned Hot” with Randall provides the steamiest moment. Indeed, the entire company – ensemble most definitely included – puts their whole heart and soul into this undertaking with attractive results.

A special nod goes to John Iacovelli for a set which evokes period without becoming boxy, and to David K. Mickelsen for the colorful costumes which evoke the quasi-period feel and the color of old style Broadway musicals. These two help to keep the show in its own era: as a self-styled “American Negro Theater” production in the 1940s.

There are a couple of issues, however. The much-touted star, Wayne Brady, makes that central figure of the producer/actor/director extremely human, but almost too human, too sensitive. The character needs to be, at least when “on,” more of a figure of ego, capturing the stage with an almost larger-than-life quality. That would make his more human, more fragile private moments stand out. Here it all blends, which dilutes the energy of the piece – a situation not aided by a singing voice occasionally on the edge of flatness.

Also, though Jeffrey Polk’s choreography is lively and sometimes impressively athletic, its overt sexuality sometimes seems out of keeping with the time period portrayed. As example, why would an actress’ dresser strip down, mid-show, on opening night, in an alley?

Still, it is fun to see “Kiss Me Kate” again, and fascinating to see how small shifts here and there create a new underlying theme to the piece. And, of course, one more chance to hear that silly song, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is never amiss. Also, the opening of this production signals the unveiling of the new carpet and especially the new seats in the theater. That in itself is worthy of celebration.

What: “Kiss Me Kate” When: Through October 12, 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: $57 – $145 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

A New “12 Angry Men”: a classic reimagined, again

A confrontation with the cast of Pasadena Playhouse's "12 Angry Men"

A confrontation with the cast of Pasadena Playhouse’s “12 Angry Men” [photo: Jim Cox]

When the Pasadena Playhouse announced they were going to produce Reginald Rose’s classic “12 Angry Men,” I admit to being of two minds. On the one hand, this play is a time-honored and extraordinarily manipulate-able classic with terrific character parts. On the other, those very aspects mean it has been done and done and done, everywhere from TV (where it was born) to high school drama programs, to Broadway, in many different permutations. Knowing that the Playhouse is rarely about simple revivals, what else can be said about this piece?

What director Sheldon Epps has done is a two-fold adaptation. First, it is updated to the modern era thus losing much of the automatic tension created by its original hot, non-air-conditioned setting. Second, the cast – though still all-male – has been evenly divided between Caucasians and African-Americans, creating a different kind of tension. With the exception of a momentary cliche, this works, and the results contain all the intensity one expects when putting twelve men in a room together and locking the door.

Essentially, the “12 Angry Men” make up a jury. Post trial, they are locked in the jury room to decide the guilt or innocence of a teenaged boy accused of stabbing his father to death. Each brings his or her own baggage. None wants to be there. When they are challenged to look at the case more deeply, their scars, prejudices, and occasionally nobility, begin to surface.

Epps has collected an impressive cast, and, with them, created an intensity which keeps the drama in high gear. All twelve men work so well together in ensemble it becomes difficult to point to standouts, as each character – defined and specific as he may be – weaves tightly into the whole.

Still, particularly memorable are Jason George, whose direct and commanding chief protagonist is the one man in the group initially taking the concept of “reasonable doubt” most seriously. As his strongest adversary, Gregory North vibrates alpha male as the one person most deeply convicted of the boy’s guilt. Adolphus Ward gives the oldest man in the room a kind of worn dignity which rises as the show progresses, while Bradford Tatum typifies the citified red neck and most intractable and prejudiced of the crew.

By and large, the tale proves as riveting as always – perhaps more so, given the added racial overtone. Still, one could wish the casting had involved one switch, as the only cliche moment in the piece comes as the vote is split down the middle along a racial line. Yet, I cannot fault any performance as a performance, and the whole outweighs this single moment.

“12 Angry Men” always made the case for the quixotic nature of juries as applied to the death penalty. As much a thriller as a human drama, it will keep an audience who doesn’t already have the play memorized on the edge of its seats. What makes this particular production so attractive has to be the fact that knowing the ending does not in any way make the process of getting there any less involving. Certainly it is worth the watching, the acting is so very good.

What: “12 Angry Men” When: Through December 1, 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: $38 – $72 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

A New Romance: “Sleepless in Seattle” the musical, at Pasadena Playhouse

The Ensemble search for that someone "Out There"  in "Sleepless in Seattle" at the Pasadena Playhouse

The Ensemble search for that someone “Out There” in “Sleepless in Seattle” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Apparently I am one of about three people in the western world who has never seen the film “Sleepless in Seattle.” This allowed me to approach the brand new musical just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse with a completely open mind. Fortunately, I had with me someone who describes that story as “the most romantic movie ever made.” Given this, I could evaluate the show in the abstract (ie: was it good as a piece of theater), and also get feedback as to whether it was true enough to the treasured film not to send people out in a huff.

The answer to both questions is a charmed, if not particularly deep yes. The humor and optimism which radiates from this production can become infectious. The sweetness of the book, by the film’s screenwriter, Jeff Arch, may sometimes border on the saccharine, but plays well as a musical. Ben Toth and Sam Forman’s songs vary from clever and apt to rather obvious, but the sum works better than its parts.

This is, in large part, due to two elements: a focused, emotionally engaged and genuine, ensemble cast and the crispness of Sheldon Epps’ direction. Epps seems to specialize in keeping an episodic tale hopping, and here is no exception. The energy becomes a given, and makes the entire production pop.

The story, for any who may not know it by heart, is this: Sam is an architect raising his son Jonah alone after the death of his wife. It has been a year, but he is resistant to looking for new companionship, until Jonah calls an all night talk show, puts him on, and he becomes the much-discussed lonely man known only as “Sleepless in Seattle.” Annie is engaged to Walter, a good, solid man who loves her even though she cannot help but feel she has settled for security rather than romance. Through a somewhat convoluted circumstance, her letter to Sleepless in Seattle ends up sent to the radio station, is picked up by Jonah and read, and thus begins a drive to maybe bring them together.

Tim Martin Gleason is both strong and vulnerable as Sam. As his gleefully boorish best friend Rob, Todd Buonopane has a delightful time, especially when teamed with young Joe West as an enthusiastic Jonah. Chandra Lee Schwartz manages the balance of wistful romantic and practicality as Annie. Robert Mammana brings a nobility to the hapless Walter. Sabrina Sloan creates the crispness which balances Annie’s romanticism as Becky, her best friend and boss. All of these folks are backed by a strong ensemble which creates character after character as needed.

Joe West, as Jonah, with Sam and Annie (Tim Martin Gleason and Chandra Lee Schwartz) atop the Empire State Building in "Sleepless in Seattle"

Joe West, as Jonah, with Sam and Annie (Tim Martin Gleason and Chandra Lee Schwartz) atop the Empire State Building in “Sleepless in Seattle”

The choreography of Spencer Liff proves bubbly and current, and works well with the near-choreography which consistently flows people and furniture through John Iacovelli’s equally facile projection screens and pieces of set. Movement is key throughout this show: the build of tensions – which would be killed by lag time – are central to the plot. So too are Brian L. Gale’s projections which move us from the Seattle waterfront to the top of the Empire State Building, and (at least usually) highlight specific performers as they make musical commentary on the fly.

Which is all to say that “Sleepless in Seattle” is not making a huge social statement, and is not intended to. Neither are its songs going to stand out as certain ones from, say, “Fiddler” or “Wicked” do. Still, the show is crisply executed, cheerful, and light-hearted: the perfect combination for an unbridled romantic. Its performers are strong, and make their characters’ humanity stand out, meaning that minor glitches in lyric or tech do not define the production because you are busy caring about the people. And that, after all, is what makes for a good, satisfying romantic story.

What: “Sleepless in Seattle” When: Through June 23, 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: $64 – $107, with premium seating for $100 on weeknights and $145 on weekends Info: (626) 356-7529 or

Stunning “Blues” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Robin Givens and Kevin T. Carroll in a scene from BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photo: Jim Cox.

Every once in a while going to the theater stops being a job and starts being just a pleasure. That’s when I know I’m watching something extraordinary. Walking away from the Pasadena Playhouse production of “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” Pearl Cleage’s 1999 tribute to depression-era Harlem, I had that feeling. It’s a beautiful, meaningful play given a taut and splendid production.

And, by the way, after a few fuzzy or false starts, The Pasadena Playhouse is back. Really back. This production is proof.

Director, and Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps has gathered a top notch cast, given the piece equally high quality production values, and let this lyrical, resonant play have its head. The charm comes from the words, which sing with a topical poetry. The charm comes from the nuanced performances and the ways in which Epps dresses his stage with people and ideas.

The story balances practicality, grasping, and dreams. Angel Allen and Guy Jacobs have just been fired from one of the last nightclubs in increasingly bedraggled Harlem. For Angel this is a slippery slope, but Guy holds fast to his dream of some day designing costumes for Josephine Baker.

These two, who live like a dysfunctional but loving family, expand their world to make room for their neighbor Delia, a social worker connected to Margaret Sanger, and Sam, a doctor who fuels his exhaustive and exhausting medical work with nights on the town. Into this world comes Leland, a grieving Alabama widower with small town values – a man Angel craves for stability, but whose views of life don’t mesh with Harlem’s sophisticated air.

Tessa Thompson’s Delia becomes a light under a bushel, just waiting for the right moment. Kadeem Hardison gives Sam that delicate balance of fragile exhaustion and rich inner strength which makes his boisterous enthusiasm a human thing. Robert Ray Manning, Jr.’s stolid, unsubtle but strong Leland makes his outsider status almost physical simply through stance and the crook of a head.

Still, the portraits you will remember are Robin Givens’ brittle, desperately conflicted Angel, and Kevin T. Carroll’s enthusiastically flamboyantly gay Guy. The energy of Carroll’s performance lights a fire under everything else, and balances the gray of Angel’s worldly-wise grasping.

All of this comes on a physically remarkable set, courtesy of John Iacovelli. It puts an apartment house on a turntable, allowing one to peer into one apartment, the hallway, or the opposite apartment in turns, while the drama continues to roll on nonstop. Backed by a host of anonymous windows, it embodies the city glow of the period, thanks to the lighting of Jared A Sayeg.

“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is riveting theater: engaging, touching and in the end compelling. As a play it remains true to its characters, avoiding clichés and cheap shots. Its resonance with our current times proves profound, even as it remains authentically rooted in its own era. Given this rich a production, it is simply not to be missed. And to think, this was a “replacement” brought in during a shuffle in the season. There is a certain irony in its being the best thing I’ve seen at the Playhouse since the theater reopened last year.

What: “Blues for an Alabama Sky” When: Through November 27, 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: $ 39 – $69 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

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