Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Sierra Madre Playhouse

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

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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

Ode to Fandom: “Always, Patsy Cline” in Sierra Madre

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D'Amico as Louise Seger in

Cori Cable Kidder as Patsy Cline and Nikki D’Amico as Louise Seger in “Always, Patsy Cline” [photo: Gina Long]

This show has been extended through September 13.

Revision: This show has now been extended through September 27.

Another Revision: This show, which is apparently completely unstoppable, is now extended through October 30.

In the world of local theater, there are two different kinds of musical productions commonly available. One is what is thought of as the “standard American musical,” with a story line enhanced with songs and dances – usually ones which advance the storyline and may be integral to the plot. The other is the “tribute concert,” a chance to recreate a musical group, performer or even revisit a particular performer’s music in such a way that folks can come to the theater to hear either a reenactment of a period concert performance (see “Beatlemania” as foundational in that genre), or come to a celebration of a performer’s music by obviously more contemporary performers, such as when a group of tuxedoed gentlemen take turns singing songs connected to, say, Frank Sinatra .

However, there is a third category I tend to refer to as the bio-tribute: it ostensibly tells some tale related to a famed musician, but is actually mostly a chance to hear lots of that performer’s songs. Among these, the most amorphous is “Always, Patsy Cline,” a show based on a true story, written by Ted Swindley. Now at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, it offers two performers a chance to play both sides of the tribute coin: one, who narrates, offers up an entertaining portrait of one die-hard fan’s encounter with her idol. The other plays the songstress herself, and sings the songs Cline was famed for, both in recreated concert settings, and as Cline’s side of conversations with the fan who idolized her.

The best news in the SMP production has to be the performers themselves. Nikki D’Amico proves a hoot as Louise, the wildly enthusiastic, uninhibited Texan whose wholehearted enthusiasm leads an exhausted Cline to come home with her after a concert gig, igniting a friendship which lasted until Cline’s untimely death in early 1963. Cori Cable Kidder has Cline’s particular vocal styling down fairly well, and thanks to Krys Fehervari’s impressively accurate wigs, looks the part. It’s a carefully underplayed portrait but it works after a fashion, though sometimes it seems that this Patsy Cline is being overwhelmed by Louise’s sheer energy.

Director Robert Marra has given the potentially static piece as much action as he can, in large part by giving D’Amico’s Louise a brash physicality – even during many of Cline’s songs – which keeps the visual energy strong. Musical director Sean Paxton has assembled a live band to back up Kidder’s vocals, and with the possible exception of the opening night fiddler, their polish helps create the essential “country” sounds of the various stages of Cline’s career.

Also worthy of note is John Vertrees’ impressively expansive-looking country barn, plus separate late-50s kitchen, set on SMP’s tiny stage. A. Jeffery Schoenberg does right by Cline’s wardrobe too – a woman making waves in country music who, early on, eschewed the usual gingham and fringe for sheath dresses and gold lame pants.

As a script, “Always, Patsy Cline” seems neither fish nor fowl, but that’s not this production’s fault. For those who just want to sit back and listen to Cline sing her songs, the enthusiastic Louise seems a distraction. For those who want to know more about this particular, factually based relationship between Cline and her most ardent fan, the comparative lack of spoken lines by the legendary singer (who was reportedly quite a lively friend) leaves the tale significantly one-sided. Still, the end result becomes a walk down memory lane for some, and an amusing snapshot of an era and a charmingly pushy fan for others. And, of course, there are those songs, and, truth be told, even this child of the rock era can listen to “I Fall to Pieces” or “Crazy” or “Walkin’ After Midnight” any old time.

What: “Always, Patsy Cline” When: Through September 12, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. all Sundays and Saturday, September 12. Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $34.50 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth to age 21 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Comic Timing Makes “Odd Couple” Shine at SMP

David Brad Reed and Jack Sundmacher in the classic "The Odd Couple" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

David Brad Reed and Jack Sundmacher in the classic “The Odd Couple” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

I doubt there is a single offering from the prolific Neil Simon more recognizable than “The Odd Couple.” From the hit Broadway play, to the hit Hollywood movie, to the long-running comedy TV series, “The Odd Couple” has entered the language. Profoundly tidy people are called Felixes, and most Americans – at least those of a certain age – immediately know what that means.

Now Sierra Madre Playhouse has opened a new production of this time-honored play. Well done from start to finish, it highlights just how funny Simon’s play is, and how little it has aged – especially if (as this one is) it is set in its original timeframe of the mid-60s.

By now everyone knows the general idea. Oscar Madison, a determinedly slob by divorced man behind on his child support payments takes in his poker buddy, Felix Unger, when Felix’s wife kicks him out. Felix is obsessively clean and a meticulous cook, and soon the two opposite behavior patterns make their friendship fray. This, especially, when they plan an encounter with two silly British sisters from their apartment building.

The SMP production proves well cast from the outset, as the entire ensemble of poker-playing pals not only look just right, but sound just as they should. As one of the two central figures, Jack Sundmacher’s Oscar is a bit less oafish than sometimes, but that emphasizes the situational aspect of his sloppiness. Brad David Reed is a bit less comic in his moroseness than some versions of Felix, but it works into the comedy in a different, less derivative way. This is a good thing.

Highlights of the SMP cast are Kari Lee and Jane Lui as the giggly Pigeon sisters – the girls from upstairs. They are truly comic from first to last. The fascinating choice of making them Asian as well as British highlights the internationalism of New York, Britain and comedy in general – a good choice all around. As the weekly poker players, Vince DonVito, Joe Langer, Richard Van Slyke, and most especially Steve Bean, as Murray the policeman, provide the buddies who give this elementally male story its energy.

Director Alan Brooks has used the comparatively small SMP stage to the utmost, utilizing John Vertrees’ set design which artfully creates all the complexities of a NY apartment in that limited area. The costuming by Angela Nicholas centers the piece and – particularly in the case of the Pigeon sisters – emphasizes the comedy on occasion.

For those who somehow have never seen “The Odd Couple” this is a great place to start. For those who have, do not expect the characterizations here to be mirrors of the ones by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon or Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. These actors have created their own sense of what Oscar and Felix should be, and that is one of the pleasures of seeing the production. So do.

What: “The Odd Couple” When: Through June 27, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with one Saturday matinee on the closing day as well Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 students 13-21, $12 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

“Putting it Together” – Sondheim sings at Sierra Madre

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse's "Putting it Together." [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Putting it Together.” [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The iconic American musical composer of the last 50 years, Stephen Sondheim, has also been the subject of five different “anthology” musicals – that is, compilations of songs written for other uses strung together to celebrate the song writer, often in the guise of a story-like theme. One of these offers a chance to hear many songs which might otherwise sit on a shelf: 1993’s “Putting It Together.” Ostensibly about couples arguing at a party, it serves as a chance to hear music written for television as well as for less-than-successful Broadway shows, all scattered between signature songs from Sondheim’s greatest works: “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music” and the like.

Now Sierra Madre Playhouse is offering up “Putting It Together” in its small space, made even smaller by the set it shares in repertory with the children’s musical “Einstein is a Dummy.” In this particularly intimate space, details matter. Here, performers range from good to excellent, the timing is solid, and everyone puts their all into the production. The humor shows, as does the pathos and the signature irony and bitterness, all to the accompaniment of an impressive grand piano.

Ostensibly, one couple – a successful man of means and his long-time society wife – are hosting a party to which a young climber and his pretty young girlfriend arrive. An ambitious caterer looks on and weighs in on occasion while the couples form, explode, re-form and redefine. In reality, the plot notwithstanding, it’s a festival of known and lesser-known Sondheim, and that is a treat all its own.

The five-person cast throws their all into the work. Several have done the show before elsewhere, and that added familiarity with what is often very difficult music cannot but help. Kurt Andrew Hansen gives the philandering party-giver an air of ownership as he sings everything from the predatory “Hello Little Girl” to the romantic “Do I Hear a Waltz”. Kristin Towers-Rowles, as his wife, vibrates with attitude, and pulls off two of Sondheim’s most often sung – pieces, “Getting Married Today” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” while making them very much her own. For songs so thoroughly attached to their initial performances, this is particularly impressive.

LIkewise, Chris Kerrigan brings a pathos to “Marry Me a Little” and a kind of panic to “Unworthy of Your Love” which are very much his own. As his date, Rachel Hirshee has fun being the pretty young thing, and has a lovely time with the more air-headed songs, like “More” and “Lovely.” Mike Irizarry, as the caterer and observer, sings with the most character definition, but is comparatively quiet-voiced next to the other four. Still, his mildly crazed “Buddy’s Blues” stands up well.

Director-choreographer Cate Caplin keeps the piece going, and provides the kind of movement which keeps the show from becoming just a concert. Jake Anthony’s musical direction paces things as they should and blends tones on the many duets in powerful ways. The thing looks polished and is often a lot of fun. There are a few issues with balance, but those do not keep the overall feel from being very attractive, particularly for such a small stage.

Still, truth be told, it is the music that wins the day. Sondheim is, for some, an acquired taste, but once one has acquired it the strong, sometimes dark, often insightful lyrics offer a specific spin on the human condition it is worth being reminded of. By the end you may find ourself (as I did, admittedly, for one or two pieces) going back to find out where they came from and why they are not heard more often.

“Putting It Together” plays evenings, while on weekdays and Sundays the matinees are productions of the children’s musical. It’s a nice balance, as Sondheim’s often very adult subject matter will provide limited enjoyment for kids.

What: “Putting It Together” When: Through March 28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sunday March 22, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays March 21 and 18 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $28 general, $25 seniors, $18 students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Science Made Silly: “Einstein for Dummies” sings for kids

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Katie Hotchkiss as Elsa, Jonathan Brett as Albert [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

Last year Sierra Madre Playhouse embarked on a new endeavor: creating theatrical material suitable for school children’s weekday matinees. Last year it was “Battledrum,” an original work tackling the Civil War through the eyes of a pre-teen drummer. This year they have opted for a comparatively tried-and-true production, with the same object. For this they have chosen Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma’s “Einstein is a Dummy,” which tries in a fictional way to make the young and odd Alfred Einstein (and his underlying genius) approachable.

In another break from SMP tradition, this show will play in a sort of repertory: Battledrum for matinees, even on weekends, and “Putting It Together,” a salute to Sondheim opening this coming weekend, for evenings. It’s a solid choice, as “Einstein” is definitely for the pre-pubescent set.

The tale involves the young Albert – a violinist at this point – and Elsa, his friend and fellow odd person out. They are joined by Constantin, the bully of the piece, whose cello seems to represent his ego. For Einstein the world is fascinating – so fascinating it is simple to forget to practice, to bring dressier clothes for a recital, or even to listen the music teacher whose ridiculous last name is intended to elicit children’s giggles. Yet, as he ponders his world, a cat only he can see (Shrodinger’s?) encourages his wonder and his constant urge to find descriptors for the unseen.

Zacarias and Wicks La Puma are central figures in TYA, or Theater for Young Audiences, and several of their musicals are part of the children’s theatre canon, “Einstein…” especially. At SMP their work is presented by two separate casts, since many of the performances are on weekdays, intended for bus-loads of elementary school kids, and thus conflicting with many actors’ day jobs.

On opening night, The Proton Cast, as opposed to The Electron Cast, showed off the show’s best attributes, aided by Sean T. Cawelti’s elaborate video displays on Sarah Krainin’s deceptively simple set. Jonathan Brett created an Einstein both earnest and obliviously optimistic. His eyes are to the universe and snippy humans are mere distractions most of the time. Katie Hotchkiss gives Ella the warm understanding which makes for lasting friendship with a social odd-ball. Indeed, she embraces his views of the universe with a complimentary intelligence in a script determined to state that girls also like science.

Thomas Anawalt tackles the comparatively two-dimensional bully Constantin with a flare which makes him weirdly lovable, while Conor Lane makes absolutist music teacher Herr Scholoppnoppdinkerdonn a figure of comic rigidity. As the cat who spurs Einstein to think outside the box, and to stick to his theories, Molly Gilman has a ball. Freed from any possible social conventions, she can give attitude, have intellectually stimulating conversations, or just be a cat. It all seems meant.

Of course, any show about Einstein is going to have to embrace his classic equation. Here it is celebrated, but not really explained all that much. Perhaps one of the goals of the piece, other than showing that elementary school oddities who don’t fit well into society may become great thinkers, is to introduce E=MC2 to an audience who, when they meet it again in high school physics will already know without knowing that E is energy, M is mass, and C is the speed of light. A cute song emphasizes this, even if the larger implications are left for an older teacher to explain.

Director Derek Manson has kept the show light and airy, and rather silly, which is important when trying to reach a young audience. The musical director is the composer, which gives a strong emphasis to the songs which, if not memorable in the long run, make the production fun in the short term.

The show is short, lasting little over an hour. That’s just the right length for a class on a field trip. It’s also a good Sunday afternoon adventure, for people who know of kids who would enjoy a spate of children’s theater. Take advantage, as this is one of the musicals for kids people genuinely celebrate.

What: “Einstein is a Dummy” When: Through April 12, weekdays for scheduled school groups, 2:30 p.m. Sundays for the general public Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 Seniors, $15 Youth 13-21, $12 Children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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