Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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There is an elemental silliness to the movie musicals of the 1930s, but that was intentional. The films offered an inexpensive escape from the strain of the Great Depression, and quite intentionally featured lavish costumes, elaborate settings, and the kinds of visual splendor only the Busby Berkeleys of this world can provide.
In 1968, George Maimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise decided to create that silly, upbeat world in small, opening “Dames at Sea” in an off-off Broadway cafe. Though it has roamed far and wide in the meantime, “Dames at Sea” has returned to its tiny-stage roots at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, once again, a six-person cast must create all the splendor and schlock of the “go out a chorus girl but come off a star” tap-dancing magic that so enthralled our forebears.
Reducing the show once again to its minimalist beginnings works well at SMP. Director Joshua Finkel understands that the only way to play this gentle satire for laughs is to play it straight, and that’s what his cast does. Aided by Jeffrey Scott Parsons’ classic 30s choreography, heavy as always on the tap dancing, and Sean Paxton’s musical direction, they manage to make this small, silly show lighthearted fun.
Katie Franqueira leads the cast as the idealistic Ruby, arriving in NYC with nothing but tap shoes, hoping to star on Broadway. Franqueira’s Ruby has an interesting combination of earnestness and nervousness which makes some of her tap numbers a bit intense, but particularly in a delightfully Busby Berkeley-worthy version of “Raining in my Heart,” she sings with an innocence and charm which prove quite engaging.
As her love interest Dick, the sailor dreaming of songwriting, Aaron Shaw has a loose-limbed charm and the kind of wide-eyed presence which balances Franqueira’s Ruby nicely. Marissa Mayer shows the right brassy style as Ruby’s new friend in the chorus, while Ruben Bravo nearly steals several scenes as Dick’s somewhat goofy Navy buddy.
Chuck McLane, in the dual role of the theatrical producer fallen on hard times, and Dick’s commanding officer talked into allowing a Broadway show to be staged on board, has a lovely time with each, managing to carve them into individuals with their own silly moments. Jennifer Knox flounces with all the necessary ego as that show’s officious and controlling star.
Shon LeBlanc – a wizard with period costumes for small venues – has given the show the right feel. Jeff G. Rack has provided all the right set pieces, including the deck of a battleship, at a size which will somehow fit on the tiny SMP stage. In short, all the pieces are there.
In short, “Dames at Sea” is silly, tuneful, and – for some – nostalgic. It makes gentle fun of an entire film genre, but not in a mean way. Rather, that almost ferocious innocence proves an antidote to the tensions of our current world, just as was true back then. And in that, even it its occasional awkward moments, this production has something in common with what it celebrates.
Also check out the theater’s movie series, which celebrates the movies “Dames” was based on. It continues with “Footlight Parade” on July 10.
What: “Dames at Sea” When: through August 3, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an extra 2:30 p.m. matinee on Saturday, August 3 Where: The Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre. How Much: $45 general, $40 seniors, $25 youth up to age 21. Info: 626-355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
In this time when, in a sadly recurring theme in our nation, immigrants are facing rejection and hatred, it is good to be reminded of a critical fact: everyone in the US except for First Nations People are, or are descended from, immigrants who came here either by force (slavery) or by choice. We all have immigrant stories inside us, whether we know them or not. In celebration and remembrance of this, Sierra Madre Playhouse is offering Mark Harelick’s fictionalized celebration of his grandfather, “The Immigrant.” Warm, timely, and given a polished production, it is a fine reminder of both the tenacity of those new arrivals and the ability of even the most stereotypically insular Americans to connect in a shared humanity.
Haskell Harelik arrived as a Jewish refugee from the Russian pogroms around the turn of the last century, ending up in the small town of Hamilton, Texas. How this young, devout man who only spoke Yiddish found his way into the protection and partnership of the town’s banker and his wife, and what he was able to do with that connection in his new surroundings, is a touching and extraordinary tale. How he and his wife were able to balance their own Eastern European Jewish heritage and customs with the demands of being the only ones with that heritage in a small, southern, American town is a tale of adaptation reflecting the many such which define the expansion of our country.
As directed by Simon Levy, the SMP production focuses on the humanity of all involved – their connections, their disconnects, and the ways in which contact can breed understanding. Adam Lebowitz-Lockard is Haskell, taking him with humor and understanding from his initial otherness to an integration which still maintains defined edges. It is a warm portrait, funny but human rather than stereotypical. As his slower-to-adapt wife, Leah, Sigi Gradwohl provides an initial foil to Haskell’s changes, as she edges from shy disapproval toward an Americanization on her own terms.
Stuart W. Howard and Kaye Kittrell, as Milton and Ima Perry, provide the other side of the equation, as the Texas couple who first take Haskell in, and later become business partners and friends. Again, the characters are not written and are not played as stereotypical rednecks. There are, and will continue to be, disconnects between the Harelik’s increasingly unOrthodox Judaism, Ima’s Evangelical Christianity, and Milton’s practical agnosticism, but as played there is an underscore of the bonds of business acumen, emotional support and sincere (if not completely unbreakable) friendship.
Worthy of considerable note is the startlingly effective use of projection-based sets, which allows a swift move from place to place and time to time. Although the photos of the Harelicks come with the script, the use of them, plus the expansive house-fronts, store rooms and roadways frame this story thanks to the artistry of Matthew G. Hill. Costumes by Shon LeBlanc give an accuracy of time and character, and original music by Peter Bayne sets the tone.
Also worthy of note are the consultants who contribute to the authenticity of the piece: Rabbi Daniel Bouskila for custom and practice, Rob Aldler Peckerar for Yiddish accuracy, and Deborah Ross Sullivan as a dialect coach for the show’s multiple accents. This is part of what sets this show apart: the striving to tell the story with accuracy as well as the warmth and pathos. As a result there is a “realness” here which plays well with anyone who has a sense of family heritage, no matter what kind.
Sierra Madre Playhouse’s productions have become more and more polished with the years, and “The Immigrant” is a fine step along that path. Touching and intimate, yet without ignoring the tensions of any such tale, it will make one step back and think about what being an immigrant, and particularly a refugee, really means, and why the US has been rightly seen as a place to begin again. We could all use that reminder these days.
There will be a number of special events surrounding the run of this show, including a discussion of immigration law with ACLU lawyers, Klezmer music, and a chance to attend a post-show talk with the playwright. Check the theater’s website for information.
What: “The Immigrant” When: through May 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 Sundays and Saturday May 26 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $40 general, $36 seniors 65 and older, $25 youth 22 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
Since 1983 the film “A Christmas Story” has been a part of many a family’s holiday traditions. Based on the writings of Jean Shepherd it offered nostalgia for a simpler time in small-town America. There, a boy in the midst of the usual drama of growing up, focuses on convincing either Santa or his parents to bring him the one thing he wants most for Christmas: a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing which tells time”.
More recently the tale has become a play, based not just on the film but on other nostalgic Shepherd’s writings. Done right, it can have the same charm as the film in a more immediate format.
Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse comes a chance to see it done right. From gifted child performers to solid and artful direction, through a remarkable-for-SMP set (considering the size of their stage) and a unified sense of ensemble, there is much to enjoy in what even the theater’s artistic director pegs as “one of the most ambitious plays” they have ever mounted.
The children in the production, and there are seven strong character parts for young people in the play, are double-cast. In the version I attended Ralphie was played by Julian Moser, whose earnestness and subtlety of character carried the production in impressive fashion. Myles Hutchinson and Jude Gomez were equally convincing as Ralphie’s two pals,
Daisy Kopolowsky, as the class brain, and particularly Xochitl Gomez-Deines, as the girl with eyes for Ralphie, provided that intriguing underlay of pending adolescence. Gideon Cooney Lebano, required mostly to be menacing, proved imposing as the school bully. Marshall Gluck makes nice work of Ralphie’s somewhat odd little brother.
But to lay the success of this production entirely at the feet of its talented youth would be to miss several other performances of note. As Ralphie’s imposing, world-weary teacher, and as the store employee serving as Santa’s definitely disenchanted elf, Danon Dastugue finds the neat balance between humor and bitterness which makes both characters highly entertaining.
Richard Van Slyke makes Ralphie’s father’s obsessions and character quirks as naturally warm as the tale permits, while Andrea Stradling proves the epitome of the midwestern, midcentury mom. Jackson Kendall gives the adult Ralph looking back on this storyline a lot more character than that of simple narrator, providing the glue which holds the piece together.
All these fine folks operate in this episodic tale on Charles Erven’s remarkable, and impressively flexible set, which lighting designer Derek Jones transforms, along with portions of SMP’s audience space, into something bigger than one thought could fit into this size of theater. The costumes courtesy of Shon LeBlanc, long known for his sense of period, round out the visuals in important ways. Still, the ensemble, the flow and movement of the piece, and the unified spark which push this show to its potential land solidly at the feet of director Christian Lebano. His affection for this show and his understanding of the need to pacing tight make the whole enterprise work.
So, if you are looking for something to watch to get you into the holiday mood, but have had enough of A Christmas Carol to last you awhile, why not try this show. It’s a change of pace, it’s very well done, and it will leave you thinking warm thoughts about the spirit, and the silliness, of this time of year. Children are more than welcome, though very young ones may find its humor goes over their heads.
What: “A Christmas Story” When: through December 31, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 19, Wednesday, December 20, and Thursday December 14 and 21 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $36 general, $33 seniors (65+), $21 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
In my earliest days as a theater critic, I covered for the volunteer reviewer at the Altadena Chronicle and thus was able to see the original cast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” when they came to the old Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood. I fell in love, with the music of course, but even more with the characters this amazing cast was able to create without actually speaking more than ten words outside the songs themselves. It was magic, and those who give awards agreed.
I have searched during the decades since then for a production of this musical which can hold up a decent mirror to the original. I don’t expect a carbon copy – indeed, in general I argue against expecting any live theater to survive by refusing to do anything but what was done initially. Instead I continued to look for the same verve, the same sense of connection and, frankly, of everyone onstage having a blast, that had typified the original. It did not, apparently, translate well.
For a long time I thought it was simply that the Aquarius had been comparatively intimate, as are some Broadway theaters. Did a larger size of the space ruin the intimacy? The answer, I now know is that it does not. Thanks to the new production from McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, at the La Mirada Theatre, I now know it is the sense of ensemble, and of fun, which makes the show live no matter the height of the proscenium, or the size of the audience.
And live it does, in La Mirada, in the best production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” I have seen since the first one.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a salute to Thomas “Fats” Waller, both as a songwriter and as an extremely popular performer of other people’s music, as well as a comedic performer – a huge star in the 1930s and 40s. The five performers embrace his stride-piano jazz style, sing favorites which have entered the American songbook, silly bits from his work for Harlem clubs, and the occasional emotional punch in the gut with character and style, and build a sense of relationship along the way.
The way this show was structured gives a flow which makes its own drama. Highlights include such moments as Boise Holmes and Frenchie Davis crooning “Honeysuckle Rose” with just the right underscore of lascivious intent, or Thomas Hobson’s slippery “Viper’s Drag,” a salute to marijuana. A salute to the trials of life during World War II brings Davis, Amber Liekhus and Natalie Wachen together to dream of “When the Nylons Bloom Again”, while Holmes and Hobson join forces to cluck over a guy who’s “Fat and Greasy.”
They all join in on commentary regarding the compromises needed to play for white audiences while “ “Lounging at the Waldorf.” Then, suddenly, the company’s wrenchingly serious “Black and Blue” underscores the truth of stardom in an era of segregation and limited acceptance. Transitions like these make this show, and they are done well throughout.
This production is directed by Ken Page, a member of the original company who has been able to communicate that ensemble feel to the performers. Under his leadership, Davis handles the part originally performed by the great Nell Carter, and manages to find a balance between that legacy and her own ways of showing strength and humor.
Wachen does solid work with the most youthful and acrobatic of the women’s roles, while Liekhus turns the often underwhelming part – the sweet counterbalance to the more demanding edges of the others – into quite an interesting addition to the whole. The men are equally excellent, with Holmes offering depth and humor while Hobson offers a slightly slippery quality full of mystery. The interconnectedness of the ensemble proves totally engaging, and great fun.
Kudos to Jeffrey Polk for the choreography, and to Lanny Hartley, who leads a top notch live band from his onstage position as pianist – a position which makes him one of the characters in the ensemble as well. An important nod to costumer Shon LeBlanc, who manages to capture the feel of the original and – like the other creative forces involved – balance it with his own vision.
In short, this show is very, very good. If you have any interest in jazz from the first half of the 20th Century, or you love classic blues, or even just want to have a great time at the theater, run, do not walk, to get tickets to this “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. It’s not here for long, but you’ll regret not seeing it if you don’t find a way.
What: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” When: through October 8, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com