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“The Little Mermaid” in La Mirada Charms Almost in Spite of Itself

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of "The Little Mermaid", part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

Alison Woods as Ariel leads the cast of “The Little Mermaid”, part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada [photo: courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Theatre Under the Stars]

When a stage musical is created from a Disney animated film there are a few basic things to look for. How close was it to being a stage musical in the first place? How will they handle the fact some, if not all the characters are not human? Are the songs in the film appropriate and/or adequate for what one wishes to present on stage? What kind of special effects will be needed to recreate the familiar and beloved elements which made the film work, or should one move to create something new?

In “The Little Mermaid,” now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as part of the McCoy Rigby Series, the answers are extremely visual, creative in staging, and sometimes a bit of a let-down musically. Still, it can be a great way to introduce young people to musical theater as an art form, and has a lighthearted silliness which makes for appealing summer entertainment.

The story, based on a tale by Hans Christian Anderson, as reworked into a Disney film, is familiar to just about everyone by now. It follows a mermaid named Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, who yearns to leave the sea world where she feels she doesn’t belong for the world of humans. Fascinated by all she does not understand, she finds focus for her yearnings when she rescues a Prince Eric, thrown overboard from his sailing vessel, and falls in love with him. She cuts a deal with her evil aunt: her voice (though it is her signature) for legs and a chance to enter the human world.

The production uses sets and costumes designed for Broadway by Kenneth Foy, Amy Clark and, aided by Mark Koss, built for a production partnership headed by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Visually stunning, they capture an underwater feel in remarkable ways. The necessary characters “swim” with flowing fabric, Scuttle the sea gull flies and lands with authority, Sabastian has a significantly “crabby look,” and the evil Ursula’s tentacles wiggle and drape with ominous intent. It’s a great visual feast, aided by John MacInnis’ clever choreography and performed by an able ensemble of singers and dancers.

There are two great differences between the film and the stage production however, besides the obvious lack of water. First is the introduction of 14 songs with lyrics written, not by the award-winning Howard Ashman, but by Glenn Slater – whose work is comparatively pedantic. The second is a greater emphasis on the reason for Ariel’s yearning for the human world – that she doesn’t fit in under the sea – and Eric’s yearning to be a sailor rather than a prince, making both characters outsiders looking for someone who will understand. This, a response to those many who have disliked the film’s message that Ariel, as the girl, had to do all the changing in order to fit into Eric’s world.

Still, Alison Woods gives Ariel both an innocent sweetness and a remarkable voice, and makes the show worth watching. Melvin Abston has a lot of fun with Sabastian, the calypso crab. Eric Kunze, as the prince, is mostly asked to look handsome and sing well, and he does this with aplomb. Time Winters fusses charmingly as his tutor, constantly reminding him that he has duties to live up to. Adam Garst makes a sweetly geeky Flounder, and Fred Inkley becomes an imposing Triton.

Still, other than Woods, the standouts of the evening are Jamie Torcellini as the malaprop-dropping, tap dancing seagull Scuttle, Jeff Skowron in a brief but intensely memorable bit as a chef preparing a table-full of seafood dishes, and Tracy Lore as the sea witch Ursula – doing everything but twirling a mustache in her delightedly straightforward villainy. And, of course, there are those songs: “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl,” among others. These works by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman set the tone for the modern Disney animated film – a legacy which has allowed one after another to be turned into successful stage events.

So, go see “The Little Mermaid.” You’ll enjoy a visual treat, and be joined by bevies of young girls – some even in costume – who will swoon to every move, and know every important line. And this is important, really, as a gateway for a new generation’s enthusiasm for live performance. A little stage magic (and this show has quite a bit) goes a long way in that wooing process.

What: “The Little Mermaid” When: Through June 26, 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 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

“Pygmalion” at the Playhouse – A Master’s Masterpiece Shines

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse's "Pygmalion" [photo: Jim Cox]

The impressive cast of the Pasadena Playhouse’s “Pygmalion” [photo: Jim Cox]


It is fascinating how a play can become so familiar one can forget where it came from. Certainly, everyone knows that they know George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but mostly because most have seen “My Fair Lady,” the highly romanticized musical (later film) based on the play. Yet, the original play was not about romance, but about societal equality and intellectual independence. Now, at the Pasadena Playhouse, one can experience a profound and polished production of Shaw’s original play, as originally written. For those sure they are familiar with the piece, this can prove revelatory.

Of course the play – whose name comes from the Greek myth of a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation – has a general plot which needs little explanation. The obnoxiously spoiled, and rather childish linguistics expert Henry Higgins, aided by the somewhat fusty Col. Pickering, takes on the task of transforming one Eliza Doolittle, a cockney street vendor, into a young lady who can pass as a duchess at a society event. What he doesn’t count on is Eliza’s intellect and free will, and her determination not to be seen as an object. In the end, the play becomes a condemnation of the image of women in late Victorian society – one which resonates remarkably clearly into the 21st Century.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has chosen to go back to the original script, leaving off later additions of embassy balls and semi-romantic returns. This is, frankly, extremely satisfying, as I have personally rebelled against the ending given in “My Fair Lady” since I first saw it on stage as a pre-teen. Shaw’s best works are often intellectual discussions with a plot, and here the complex and immensely satisfying battle of wits between Eliza and Higgins gets to stand on its own, making the point Shaw was actually out to make. That makes the play important again.

Paige Lindsey White makes a convincing Eliza. Her body language changes subtly as she matures, and her beauty proves equally subtle: a sharpness softened by care and carriage. This makes the transformation particularly satisfying, and (despite an English professor long ago who claimed it impossible) quite convincing. Bruce Turk makes Higgins both articulately intellectual and ridiculously childish – more a brat than a hermit. It works wonderfully well, adding a layer of comedy a more grounded character could not. Stan Egi gives Col. Pickering a decidedly unaware feel, as if he exists mostly on manners rather than intellectual rigor. All three give a lovely balance to the entire production.

Also worthy of high praise are Ellen Crawford, far less shockable and far more fatalistically practical than usual as Higgins’ housekeeper. Time Winters makes Eliza’s father less goofy and far more disturbed by his change of fortunes, and it works. Most particularly, Mary Anne McGarry gives an aura of wisdom and worry – the articulate view of a woman with a deep understanding of the limitations of womanhood – as Higgins’ mother. Alex Knox and Carolyn Ratteray each have deeply comic moments as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his sister Clara, while Lynn Milgrim, as their mother, becomes symbolic of the comparatively piteous condition of a poor and widowed society woman.

Still, the unifying force and the significant vision are Kubzansky’s. She takes characters which can easily become prosy, and meshes them into an interesting blend of attitudes and desires one can truly connect with. Pacing and understanding flow easily – and that’s saying something when one speaks of Shavian works.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has created an elemental set which moves swiftly from scene to scene, allowing the flow of what is essentially an episodic tale to become remarkably even. Leah Piehl’s costuming holds fairly true to the period, and provides subtle personality clues along the way.

In short, this “Pygmalion” gets it right, start to finish. This play rarely has a chance to stand on its own, and project the message Shaw was trying to get across. This time, it does, and that is pure delight for anyone who loves a good intellectual argument.

What: “Pygmalion” When: Through April 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating at $125.00 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Curiouser and Curiouser – Lewis Carroll examined in world premiere at Boston Court

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In recent years a certain amount of suspicion has attended the stories of those repressed Victorian gentlemen who became friends with, and told stories to, young children. J.M. Barrie’s potential over-attachment to the young boys of a widow sits right next to the century-old delight of his “Peter Pan.” And then there is the mystery of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and the three days excised from his diaries. During those days something changed in his relationship with the three girls of the Liddell family, especially the middle daughter, Alice. Before, the two had been fast friends, forming the foundation for “Alice’s Adventures Underground” or “Alice in Wonderland”. Afterward, the friendship vanished, and association with the Liddells all but vanished. Speculation about those three days has been pondered ever since.

Which leads to Lily Blau’s “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll,” developed in collaboration with Sydney Gallas at The Theatre at Boston Court, in Pasadena. Now receiving its world premiere, the play examines the larger storyline behind Dodgson’s connection to the Liddells, at least as it might have been. In the process it covers Dodson’s professional relationship with their father, to the brilliance of Dodgson’s mathematical mind as a lecturer at Christ Church College in Oxford, to his passions for photography and nonsensical writing, for which he is best remembered.

Also on hand are his foibles – his stammer, which made him socially awkward with adults, and his enforced repression as an ordained deacon, which may have contributed to concerns about his fascination with the family of pre-pubescent girls. The play leaves the relationship as somewhat of an open question, allowing for Dodgson’s fantasies, yet leaving the audience to decide whether or not he recollects his time with the Liddells as it actually happened.
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Leo Marks appears the essence of vulnerability as Dodgson, from his speech troubles to his jittery sense of excitement. Jeff Marlow becomes his alter ego as the White Rabbit, pushing him to remember that time yet always with an edge: did he or did he not live out his fantasies as time passed.

Corryn Cummins creates the rebellious, somewhat rough-and-tumble Alice whose unique curiosity fueled Dodgson/Carroll’s storytelling, all the while managing to capture the trusting innocence of a protected child. Erin Barnes gives her older sister Ina the edge of logic and practicality Alice lacks, while Ashley Ruth Jones gives the younger, sicklier Edith an impatience and even occasional detachment as her illness progresses. All three girls, though young in the storyline are played by adults, which works in part because the entire tale is in Dodgson’s mind – age is relatively less important than image – and partly because it removes any extra disquiet from the underlying implications of the plot.

Erica Hanrahan-Ball gives real spine to the protective and disapproving Mrs. Liddell, while Time Winters makes her husband a man of balanced forces and kindly tone. Indeed, it is perhaps Winters and Hanrahan-Ball and their read on their characters, which frame the questions posed by the White Rabbit and the storyline itself.

Director Abigail Deser, who has worked with the playwright for several years to hone and polish this piece, creates a state of underlying tension amid an atmosphere radiant of the time and place the story occupies. Stephen Gifford creates a fascinatingly modular set, opening up or closing off Dodgson’s world with the flick of a piece of panel or the slide of a drape. Likewise, Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting takes one from literal to fantastic in subtle ways. Costumer Garry Lennon gets a lot of it right, though someone needs to do some serious doctoring to Dodgson’s tie.

Nonetheless, the careful crafting of this piece is obvious everywhere, and the playwright’s fascinating juxtaposition of the internal fantasies of a man whose social life was thwarted in numerous ways and the overt world in which he walked day by day keeps one interested from start to finish. “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll” is performed without an intermission, and one can see why as the tensions and angst grows slowly over the course of the piece.

In the end, one is left to answer one’s own questions. Nobody knows what really happened in that three day gap, and this script allows one to be more or less generous to Dodgson and to Carroll, depending on how one reads the performances and the performers. It makes for an interesting evening, and significant discussion post-performance. But then, most of what the Boston Court does is worthy of discussion, though since this play has more its feet on the ground than some, this conversation may be a bit more about the real. Check with the theater, as the Boston Court is known for after-play discussions of historical and literary aspects of the time period and the play, and several are offered this time.

What: “The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll” When: Through March 1, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 with senior, student and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

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