Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Sierra Madre Playhouse

Everyone Has Fun in “Pump Boys and Dinettes” in Sierra Madre

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(l. to r.) Emily Kay Townsend, Sean Paxton, Mike Murray, Kevin Tiernan, Jimmy Villaflor in Sierra Madre Playhouse’s production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” [photo: Gina Long]

Note: This show has now been extended through August 12

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the definition of what made something a Broadway-style musical was in flux. In this period a number of shows appeared which were essentially concerts sung by created characters, from those which were actually more of tribute concerts featuring the songs of a historic musical artist or group, to those which used original material and characters. Among these the most commonly done include “Always… Patsy Cline,” “Forever Plaid” and “The Marvelous Wondrettes”. One of the toughest to produce, as the performers double as the band, is “Pump Boys and Dinettes”.

Now at Sierra Madre Playhouse, “Pump Boys…” features original country songs (including one which reached the country music charts), and a minimalist plot about five buddies working in a roadside a garage and the two Cupp sisters running the Double Cupp Diner next door, on Highway 57 between Georgia and North Carolina. The guys play and are joined in singing by the ladies, who also produce pies, and serve a few guests on their side of the stage.

Frothy, tuneful and played by a cast truly enjoying themselves, “Pump Boys…” becomes a brief vacation from reality. Its cast sings with authority for the most part, and the guys prove to be excellent musicians. Indeed, their musicianship is the necessary element in making the show successful.

Sean Paxton, Michael Butler Murray, Kevin Tiernan and Jimmy Villaflor plus a quiet Jim Miller on drums, not only sing a lot of the songs but provide the entire band. Cori Cable Kidder, known to SMP audiences from her 2015 appearance as Patsy Cline, and Emily Kay Townsend provide occasional percussion, but are mostly there to sing and provide a lot of the sense of character and plot. The musicianship in all cases proves good to very good. Indeed, the only real shaky moment is a brief piece of tap choreography by Kidder.

Director/choreographer Allison Bibicoff has done what can be done to take a musical without a plot and give it a sense of authenticity on the small SMP stage.  In this she is aided by set designer Jeff G. Rack’s remarkably complex set, given the size of the SMP stage space. The cast has a strong sense of ensemble, and there are moments of real charm, including Villaflor and the women saluting the charms of having a farmer tan, and Paxton’s wistful rendition of “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” – the song which made it to the charts.

Which is not to say the production is perfect. Some are better singers than actors, and some better actor/performers than singers. Still, the energy and general charm carries this piece through, and one is surprised that the show has ended, when it does.  SAlaAo, if you are looking for a place to rest your brain and have an evening of tuneful fun, “Pump Boys and Dinettes” offers just that – yet another sign of the reputation SMP is building for itself.

What: “Pump Boys and Dinettes”  When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 2:30 p.m. Saturdays starting July 7. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre  How Much: $40-$45 general, $35-$40 seniors aged 65 and over, $25-$30 youth aged 22 and under  Info: (626) 355-4318 or www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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Timely Reminder: “The Immigrant” in Sierra Madre

Stuart W. Howard (l.), and Adam Lebowitz-Lockard in “The Immigrant” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

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

“Nothing is The Same”: Pearl Harbor As Kids Saw It

Tristen Kim (l.), Asia Ring, Yeng Kong Thao as children on Oahu as bombs fall in 1941 in “Nothing is the Same” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Grace Kim]

For the past four years the Sierra Madre Playhouse has expanded their offerings to include a play intended to bring some piece of history, science or culture to school-aged children. In so doing they have hosted over 10,000 school children from 9 school districts. Now the fifth such production has landed on their stages, and it is particularly fine. “Nothing is the Same” by Y York examines the racial tensions of Hawai’i in the first years of World War II through the lens of four Pacific-Asian schoolmates living near Wheeler Air Force Base on the island of Oahu, on and just after December 7, 1941.

Directed by the celebrated Tim Dang, himself originally from Hawaii, the play has a specific ring of authenticity both in the characters created and the atmosphere created around them. Quick (it is only an hour and fifteen minutes long), and specific, “Nothing is the Same” uses a simple setting – the site where children gather to play marbles – to exemplify everything that was questioned, and questionable, about life on the island once the attack had come.

There are two casts which alternate in performance. The “Makai Cast” featured Melvin Biteng is George, a likable Filipino youngster focused mostly on trying to improve his technique enough to win back the marbles he consistently lost in games with his friends. Asia Ring is Bobi, the tomboy Korean girl born in Hawaii – quick to judge, but equally quick to correct herself. Tristen Kim is Daniel, the poorest of the children and Korean by birth, who harbors his family’s dislike for the Japanese based on his own people’s experience. Yeng Kong Thao is Mits, the Japanese marbles champ who attributes his skill to his samurai background until the attack places him as the enemy.

The interplay of the children is all in classic Hawaiian Pidgin English, which has its own musical lilt (the program comes with a glossary), but the themes are distinctly current in feel. The attack turns Mits into the enemy even though he was a friend the day before. As the outgoing boy becomes increasingly frightened and withdrawn, Daniel finds new power as the neighborhood bully, enjoying his suddenly assumed superiority and taking everything he can.

Still, it is Biteng’s George and Ring’s Bobi who center the piece, as they struggle to find their identities in the changing social architecture, and to wrestle with issues of fairness, friendship and what truly makes a hero or a champion in a world torn by war and invaded by masses of gullible new GIs unused to island ways. Indeed, these children, as played by young adults, evoke a genuine quality which makes their struggles easy to empathize with – especially the internal wrestles with the difference between the Japanese person they know and what is being trumpeted by adults regarding who the Japanese are.

A particular nod must go to Kelsey James Kapono Chock, whose insertion of hula movement gives power to several important but otherwise difficult to stage scenes, and whose dialect coaching grounds each character in time and space. Tesshi Nakagawa has painted a set evocative of location and art style of Hawaii in that period. Rod Salasay’s ukulele artistry adds to the sense of place. Still, with minimal props and much use of audience suspension of disbelief, it is the four performers who make this thing work, creating a solid sense of ensemble.

“Nothing is the Same” won the Hawai’i Award for Literature, a testament to its grounding in a sad but important-to-remember truth. To introduce students to another time when children and adults made snap judgments about those around them based on what, rather than who, they were is important in this day, when many do the same to yet another group of neighbors within our communities. Indeed, one cannot think of a time more ripe for making students think outside the superficial judging of people in some way unlike themselves.

The production in Sierra Madre will be enhanced by specific cultural nights focused on the Japanese cultural experience in the San Gabriel Valley, a chance to learn hula, and a collection of mini-workshops on the cultures of the Philippines, Korea and native Hawaiians – helping create further understanding of the cultures represented in the play. Check the theater’s website for more information.

What: “Nothing is the Same” When: Through March 4, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Saturday February 24 and March 3, plus multiple times and dates on school days for invited student groups. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (20 and younger) Info: http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Polished “A Christmas Story” Charms in Sierra Madre

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

Still Fun to Listen to Sister: “Late Night Catechism 3” at Sierra Madre

Aubrey Manning as Sister, in SMP’s “Late Night Catechism: Till Death Do Us Part” [photo courtesy of Sierra Madre Playhouse]

Note: As this review is uploaded there are only two more performances available at this site.

Anyone who has ever been to one of the Late Night Catechism franchise of productions is in for a treat. Started by Maryipat Donovan, who still occasionally appears in one of its various manifestations, the shows are ostensibly one in a series of night catechism classes for adults led by a practical, habited nun. She invariably draws upon audience members’ memories of Catholic upbringings, welcomes those not of that faith into the fold with humor and a few oddities (see what happens if an audience member claims to be a Presbyterian), and gently ribs the rudiments of the religion being represented.

The prizes are prayer cards, the assumptions are intentionally silly, and the result proves very funny for Catholics, non-Catholics, even non-religious folk alike.

Now, at Sierra Madre Playhouse, one of the tribe of “Sisters”, Aubrey Manning, delivers Late Night Catechism’s session on marriage and death, “Till Death Do Us Part”. The audience interplay is as charmingly sincere as always. The prayer cards, which always come with intricate, and sometimes silly explanations, delight. The audience, having been instantly put at ease, chimes in when bid, like any good class would. It is a gentle but unmistakable hit.

As someone who has, up until now, only seen Donovan herself appear as Sister, it was delightful to see the somewhat different but equally effective, and intentionally “off the cuff” work of Manning. That balance of command and conviction, of sincerity and the occasional wink, and the ability to make an entire room of reasoning adults behave as if back in school proves right on target, and makes the humor flow from start to finish.

The story, such as it is, revolves around explaining the Catholic beliefs regarding the sacraments of marriage and what is most commonly known as “extreme unction,” or the rights given to the dying. Tying the two together is funnier than one would think, and the focus on the former – including a quiz which brings long-term couples down front to compete in what can only be called the opposite of the Newlywed Game – proves particularly effective.

Indeed, more than most theatrical offerings, the Late Night Catechism is deeply audience-based. There are warm fuzzies to be had, revelations to be made, lessons to be learned, and a good deal of innocent laughter. Is it deep? It depends on how you look at it. Unlike shows such as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” which finds its dark comedy in bitter condemnations of Catholic doctrine, or “Doubt,” which deals quite seriously with the internal struggles between obedience and potential depravity in the institutional halls of the faith, “Late Night Catechism” celebrates the humor to be found in the earnest teachings of the roots of the thing. All serious institutions should occasionally hold such a mirror up to themselves, even if just for the fun of it.

So, if you need a warm laugh, go take a look at SMP’s offering. Manning is an old hand at this, the fun is nonthreatening, and the charm will lighten a tough era in all our lives.

What: “Till Death Do Us Part – Late Night Catechism 3” When: Through October 1, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $32 general, $28 seniors, $23 youth 21 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or sierramadreplayhouse.org

Poetry Reigns in “The Belle of Amherst” in Sierra Madre

Ferrell Marshall in “The Belle of Amherst” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: John Dlugolecki]


I once heard someone refer to Emily Dickinson as “the Vincent Van Gogh of American poetry”. By this, I assume, the speaker was making a correlation between the two as having been dismissed artistically in their own lifetimes, yet become highly celebrated in the more modern era. Certainly, the increasingly reclusive Dickinson, who wrote over 1000 poems and created phrases that even those who don’t think they know her work are familiar with, was ignorable in her own time in part because her poetry didn’t follow the elements expected from a poet in that period, and partly (it must be said) because she was female.

All of which is covered in William Luce’s now-classic one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst,” currently at Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, Ferrell Marshall has taken on the story of Dickinson with a generous understanding of what her poetry has to say, and the heart of the woman behind all those now-familiar words. Directed by Todd Nielsen to balance this treasure trove of verbiage with enough action to keep the hearer engaged, the play works well to both charm and and instruct.

This has been a lifelong dream for Marshall, who has been a fan of Dickinson’s work since she was quite young. That sense of dedication shows, as Luce’s script balances a combination of emotion, story-telling, and the integration of poetry into narration, to create a solid portrait of a particular artistic soul: the good daughter of a Victorian, if loving, father whose emotions were splayed on paper in ways they could not be uttered in real life. Though physically quite different from her subject, whose self-characterizations indicate she was quite petite, Marshall has a sense of quietness in her portrayal, balancing Emily’s wit and her darkness in ways which make her works make sense and her poetry sing.

Also worthy of note is the constant reference made to others outside the house Dickinson intentionally made into a fortress, especially friends from her school years, and former neighbor Helen Hunt Jackson, who was perhaps the best known American woman writer of her day. Indeed, Jackson’s pithy commentary in her letters to Emily, as a woman making her living by writing, makes a neat balance to Dickinson’s more internal art.

As for the production itself, the set dressings – furniture, photographs, and such – evoke the era and class of this poet, placed on a set left amorphous enough to handle this show and “A Wrinkle in Time,” with which it in repertory. To this are added occasional projections which celebrate Dickinson’s love of her gardens, turning the flowers she wrote of into what feels like wallpaper. Marshall’s single costume evokes a sense of period, though lacking in some of its specifics. Still, the net result sets one in the proper atmosphere to enjoy the backstory and the written words of a woman who – according to Luce – coveted her own mysterious image a bit, and yet longed for connections she considered herself too plain to ever acquire.

In short, “The Belle of Amherst,” in the person of Marshall, is worth a look. Come ready to sit and listen, for this is a quiet tale, told without elaborate flourishes. It is, however, a telling look into the person behind such poetry as “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me…” or “Hope is a thing with feathers…” and perhaps rediscover what poetry can do that prose cannot.

“The Belle of Amherst” plays in repertory with “A Wrinkle in Time”.

What: “The Belle of Amherst” When: through April 23, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-21), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Ethics, Ethnicity, and Privilege: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind's eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading:

Tamarra Graham as Shalita Burns meets, in her mind’s eye, Leilani Smith and Jon Sprik as the characters in the memoir she is reading: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” at SMP [Photo: Gina Long]


Although Thomas Gibbons’ play “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” has been billed as a story about cultural appropriation, the appeal underneath that essential concern is as large: the entire concept of literary ethics. As such, it plays not only to genuine and important concerns about who gets to tell stories tied thoroughly to a particular ethnic or cultural minority, but about all the angles authors have tried in desperation to get a work published. As such, even for those who would never think of embracing ethnic/cultural confusion, there are some very strong statements waiting at the core of the script.

As produced by Sierra Madre Playhouse, all of this comes fascinatingly to light. Well directed, well performed, and beautifully set, it becomes a show most definitely worth checking out.

Shelita Burns (Tamarra Graham) has joined a small publishing house as an editor, because they’ve given the green light to her quest to rediscover the lost voices of African American women authors long out of print, and create a series out of their works. Into that space has arrived a manuscript – a memoir of the life of a drifter, a woman who saw much of the South’s darkness, from Jim Crow forward. Her unique story has won a major non-fiction award, and though Burns had agreed that there would be no personal contact with Libby Price, the author, she decides to ignore this and give the award to Libby in person. This becomes its own rabbit hole, where it appears that nothing may be as has been assumed.

The arguments within the play – and for the audience – then stem from the tangled knot of knowledge and voice and empathetic response and even literary definition which evolve from what, at least initially, seems a pretty obvious concern. That very complexity – the fact that the play doesn’t try to make just a single point and slam it home – proves most satisfying. That, and the sheer quality of the production itself.

Graham makes her character at once deeply, emotionally connected to the work she is doing and ambitious enough to step outside her personal connection with the work she does to the greater rewards awaiting the success of the work she publishes. That balance, and the testing given to both parts, form the essence of the play. Olivia Cristina Delgado, as Shelita’s friend in the publishing business, underscores their elemental Gen-X-ness, and the business end of why a successful book is Shelita’s way forward.

Jon Sprik creates the dual characters of the Times reporter who makes Shelita voice her devotion to Libby’s work, and separate and distinctly develops the white man complicit in Libby’s story. Leilani Smith gives Libby – as narrator of the book she is credited with writing – an elemental warmth and earthiness which dances on the border between stereotype and genuineness, as the play demands.

SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano provides the lynchpin to all of these characters as Sean, a writer living the under-appreciated life whose machinations bring Libby’s story to Shelita’s attention in ways which create every possible ethical question mark. By creating a character firm in his own unique understanding of the right, he provides Burns’ character with the ultimate foil, and underscores the complex nature of the questions the play has to ask.

Director Saundra McClain has set this episodic piece with a flow made possible by Christopher Scott Murillo’s multi-layered set, which allows the book’s characters to speak from behind a thin screen as those wrestling with the book’s content and future deal more concretely in the foreground. The seamlessness with which this story flows back and forth from the printed page to the modern understanding cements the power of the questions being asked.

In the end, “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” (the name comes from a quaint reference to the train stop beyond hell that someone who has done wrong may arrive at) will leave some in the audience with several levels of moral conundrums to discuss. As a writer, one sees several ethical lapses present in the narrative. Those with a closer connection to the culture being appropriated will find even more. Which are most important, or whether any are, will be the source of discussion after the play itself is done. But then, isn’t that one of the purposes of theater – to challenge one’s assumptions and leave room for change, doubt and revelation?

What: “Bee-Luther-Hatchee” When: through February 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with an additional matinee at 2:30 p.m. February 18. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth, $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“A Little House Christmas”: A Less Standard Christmas Offering in Sierra Madre

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in "A Little House Christmas" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]

Sofia Naccarato, Rachel MacLaughlan, Rich Cassone, and Katie-Grace Hansen are Laura, Ma, Pa and Mary Ingalls in “A Little House Christmas” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [Photo: Gina Long]


With the advent of the holiday season, the demand for something appropriate rises, and theaters – particularly small theaters – begin to struggle with what to provide for their patrons. There is always “A Christmas Carol,” and a wide variety of versions of it, and of plays about people performing it, exist. Still, that has been done so much that a theater out to make its own mark may turn to something else.

Sierra Madre Playhouse has pushed aside Dickens for Laura Ingalls Wilder, and brought back “A Little House Christmas” first produced there two years ago. Then it was all rather precious and stagey. This year’s production is thus a revelation. With a new, strong and naturalistic cast, a director who understands how to make the piece flow, and a feel of continuity – even with the injected period songs which once stood out like interruptions to the tale – this year’s “Little House” proves charming and sweet, but organically so.

The story is derived from one in Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie”. Christmas approaches, the Wilders invite those who aided them as they built their barn to come out to the country for a celebration. Unfortunately, a gully-washing rainstorm begins, the creek starts to rise, the guests must leave quickly, and it soon becomes possible that even Santa may not be able to get to the Wilder home in time for the 25th. What will the Wilders do?

Director Alison Eliel Kalmus not only has a feel for the pacing and tone of this work, she also operates the AKT children’s theater company at SMP, from which were supplied most of the talented children who take significant parts (many of which are double-cast) in the play. The quality of the child actors proves particularly important in a story told from a little girl’s perspective, but the adults are not slouches either.

Among the adults, Rachel McLaughlan’s Ma radiates practical hopefulness, even as she seems weighted by the worries prairie women faced, and sings beautifully when called upon. Rich Cassone gives Pa the open-hearted life force one expects, balanced realistically with the limitations of time and place.

Thomas Colby humanizes the lonely bachelor Mr. Edwards with a genuine heartiness and warmth far from the potentially saccharine rendition one almost expects. Barry Schwam makes family’s uncle – a man unglued by his Civil War experiences – a touching piece to this puzzle, while Valerie Gould’s extremely human Mrs. Oleson charms far more than the expected stereotype.

The children who performed on opening night were likewise un-stagey, and brought a humanizing force to the proceedings. Most especially, Sofia Naccarato’s innocently charming Laura and Katie-Grace Hansen’s Mary showed character, timing, total engagement with story and character, and – especially in Hansen’s case – strong and secure singing voices without that harsh Andrea McArdle overtone so common in youthful stage performers.

Adam Simon Krist and especially Patrick Geringer made the visiting young cousins likable and familiarly boyish. Samantha Salamoff, called upon mostly to be disgusted and moderately disengaged, did this well as the snobbish Nellie Oleson.

One of the real stars of this production has to be Stephen Gifford’s set, which takes all these remarkably realistic people and places them in time and space. Tanya Apuya’s costumes are likewise accurate and character-appropriate. There are little glitches now and then: people who are supposed to be soaking wet aren’t, and little girls sit around in their nightdresses on a winter evening when there is no dry wood for the fire without even wearing shawls, but somehow these seem minor when compared with the general genuineness of feeling this production has to offer.

In brief, this rendition of “A Little House Christmas” proves itself to be far less cloying, far better paced, and far more cohesive than SMP’s previous rendition. As a result, it makes for a fine, and comparatively unique, holiday treat for young and old. Certainly, it makes a break from the predictable Christmas fare.

What: “A Little House Christmas” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with extra performances at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 10 and 17, and 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, December 20-22 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 children and youth Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Fabulous “Spelling Bee” finishing run in Sierra Madre

The "kids" celebrate competing in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Sierra Madre Playhouse

The “kids” celebrate competing in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Sierra Madre Playhouse

I’m always fascinated by how shows on local stages go in waves. All of a sudden, within maybe a two-year span, the same play or musical will sprout in several different productions. The down-side is that often this can mean the piece – originally fun to see – gets beaten to death by sheer repetition. To some extent, this has been true of the small, clever musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.

But wait.

It is that very fact which made the production of “Spelling Bee” running at Sierra Madre Playhouse all the more surprising. Even after seeing so many other renditions, this one proved especially captivating: totally on target in both character and energy (not to mention talent) from beginning to end.

The tale developed from an improv, and has that kind of quirky charm. Victors of local contests gather for the county bee which will vault the winner into the national finals. The pressure is intense, and the combination of nerdiness, neediness, and adolescent angst means all the contestants have scenarios running through their heads throughout the day. The hostess, herself a former winner, relives her glory days as a bonafide victor, while the edgy middle school vice-principal reads the competition words and a street tough doing community service provides “comfort” (meaning a juice box and a hug) to those who fail.

The ensemble cast works together seamlessly, as the story progresses with side-notes of internal fantasy throughout the competition. In the process, each “child” character has a specific and well-defined if often quirky charm. Joey Acuna, Jr. creates a delightfully hormonal Chip – the previous year’s champion wrestling with both a need to repeat and an intensifying interest in girls. Robert Michael Parkinson as Leaf, a deeply innocent child of hippie parents who gradually realizes he’s smart, often captures the heart.

Joy Regullano’s Marcy embodies all the internalized pressures of having to be perfect, while Hannah Leventhal’s intense Logainne wrestles with her own excitement, her two dads’ expectations, and a certain underlying moral force. Yet among the competitors the standouts – both in characters as designed, and as played – have to be Stanton Kane Morales’ weirdly earnest Barfee, and Cristina Gerla’s profoundly fragile Olive, who more than in any other version of this I’ve seen, find a genuine connection born of their own isolation.

Richard Van Slyke gives a nicely anxious vibe to the vice-principal. Gina D’Acciaro embodies all the odd twists of a middle-aged woman looking back to her childhood victory as the best moment in her life. Jaq Galliano does more with Mitch, the street tough, than the norm, as he wrestles with a genuine sympathy for these kids who haven’t seen real pain yet as well as his character’s completely inadequate role in providing them comfort.

Director/choreographer Robert Marra has melded all these find individuals into a well-paced, active and engaging whole. His choreography uses the small SMP stage to its full extent, especially in Marcy’s defining song. The audience volunteers who are always a part of “Spelling Bee” are also incorporated far more naturally into the show than usual, yet another sign of the solid sense of ensemble established onstage. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg creates just the right costumes, Jeff Cason does wonders with the lighting (as the set itself he has designed is the usual “Spelling Bee” minimalism), and Joe Lawrence’s musical direction keeps the show tuneful and fluid.

In short, this is – bar none – the best version of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” I have seen. It is charming, heart-felt, active and engaging. One must warn that it does have a few references to adult themes (particularly in the case of Chip’s rising adolescence), but offers a lot of laughter, much of it laughter of recognition. It also only has one weekend left, so hurry out and see this treat of a show. You will be glad you did.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through August 21, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $35 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth, $20 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“Deathtrap” in Sierra Madre: Red Herrings and Suspense Galore

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, "feels" the room in "Deathtrap" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Chriopher Cappiello and Shaw Purnell watch as Karesa McElheny, playing a psychic, “feels” the room in “Deathtrap” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

As fun as suspense-thriller plays are to watch, they are always difficult to review simply because one must tip-toe around the plot to avoid handing out unintended “spoilers”. Thus, a discussion of the Sierra Madre Playhouse production of “Deathtrap,” the wildly popular thriller which set records off-Broadway, may seem a bit cagey. Still, this production, which was postponed several times to accommodate the wild popularity of SMP’s “Always, Patsy Cline,” provides just enough fascinating red herrings, and just enough jump-out-of-your-seat surprises to be very satisfactory.

This is, in part, due to Ira Levin’s well crafted play itself, in part due to the stylish direction of SMP Artistic Director Christian Lebano, and in part due to a good, ensemble cast who can carry this whole complex construction off.

The tale surrounds frustrated, if famous playwright Sidney Bruhl. Though his fortune was made by hit suspense plays, his more recent ones have fallen flat. Now, steeped in deep writer’s block, he begins to imagine other ways of acquiring a hit script to move forward with. And this is when everything gets rather dark, and extremely convoluted.

Christopher Cappiello, as Bruhl, captures the frustration, the desperation, and the potentially fearsome calculation of a man who cannot be second rate. As his practical, if a bit wary wife, Shaw Purnell displays an opposing calm and content approach to life which may actually provide Bruhl with an added irritation. David Tolemy gives an increasing self-absorption to the playwriting workshop student Bruhl has taken under his wing, while – in a tiny but essential part – Don Savage creates the jolly, but practical voice of Bruhl’s legal advisor and friend.

Still, the absolute standout in this production has to be Karesa McElheny, as Bruhl’s neighbor – a famed psychic played as the most fascinating spiritual kook since Noel Coward’s Madame Arcati. Every time she enters the room, the energy rises.

Kudos go to set designer John Vertrees. I am genuinely amazed at how much real estate he managed to get onto the tiny SMP stage, and how polished it looks. Also polished are the costumes of Vicki Conrad and Ken Merckx’s fight choreography. If there is one fly in the ointment it is that some of the antique pistols used in the play will, to anyone who knows how firearms work, be anomalous with what they are supposed to do. Other than that, the polish is constant.

There is a reason “Deathtrap” lasted so long in New York. Its twists are genuinely startling, and certainly not for either the intolerant or the faint of heart. It also offers up a rather comic, if occasionally disturbing, view of the deep and profound nature of writer’s block which can warp the imagination of anyone who makes a living by the written word.

As produced at Sierra Madre Playhouse, the suspense stays constant, suspicion of everyone allows for edge-of-your-seat viewing, and that satisfying kind of anxiousness which makes suspense stories fun doesn’t let up until the final curtain. “Deathtrap” may not be deep, but it is filled with memorable characters and great weirdnesses of plot. And that can make for one entertaining evening. One warning: due to some of the violence and a few more adult situations, I would not suggest bringing young children.

What: “Deathtrap” When: Through February 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Thursday, February 4 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $30 general, $27 seniors, $20 youth (13-20), $17 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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