Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

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Whittier’s “Steel Magnolias”: Back to the Point

Nancy Tyler, Marty Crouse, Rose London, Evelyn Goode, Juli Ray and Veronique Warner Merrill in "Steel Magnolias", helping celebrate Whittier Community Theatre's 95th anniversary [photo: Avis Photography]

Nancy Tyler, Marty Crouse, Rose London, Evelyn Goode, Juli Ray and Veronique Warner Merrill in “Steel Magnolias”, helping celebrate Whittier Community Theatre’s 95th anniversary [photo: Avis Photography]

Most people know Robert Harling’s salute to southern womanhood, “Steel Magnolias,” from the 1989 film – a film I have always had issues with, because it seems to violate the central point of the piece. So, when the Whittier Community Theatre announced a production, it provided a chance to get reacquainted with the original play and its original concept.

The story centers on Truvy Jones’ beauty shop in small-town Louisiana. There, a group of neighborhood women gather regularly to be family to each other. Truvy’s husband – who apparently sits all day in front of the TV – is never seen. Neither are her two boys, who leave town as the play begins. This is not their world, it is Truvy’s, regularly including Clairee Belcher, the widow of the town’s mayor still looking for meaning beyond cheering on the high school football team, M’Lynn Eatenton, who – as the play begins – is readying for the wedding of her medically fragile daughter Shelby, and Ouiser Boudreax, the grumpy divorcee with an odd-looking dog.

The shop is the safe space for all these women, and for Annelle, the lost soul who becomes Truvy’s assistant. Indeed, the point of this play (as I have always seen it) is that the walls of this shop provide a fortress against the male-dominated world outside. Here they have control, and a particular brand of understanding comfort unavailable anywhere the men in their life stand. For that reason, the play has only one set – the shop – and the outside is left to our imagination. In a real sense, those other places don’t matter. This is where these women find home.

At WCT, this essential fact is honored, and though the production proves a bit low-rent, the essentials still work. Veronique Merrill Warner gives Truvy a tone of humor and level-headedness which set the tone for the rest of the show, though it is sometimes a bit underplayed. Nancy Tyler’s Clairee evokes a foundational love of life, even as her character searches for her own identity after a lifetime of being “the mayor’s wife.” Rose London radiates an almost sacrificial practicality as M’Lynn, trying to be the voice of sense for her daughter even as she faces frustrations of her own with humor. Marty Crouse is a hoot as the crabby Ouiser, whose underlying warmth becomes increasingly obvious as the play moves forward.

Evelyn Goode does not radiate fragility as Shelby, but perhaps that is the point. Most certainly, it makes her story the surprise it should be for the rest of the characters. In the process she creates a genuine balance of optimism and romantic impracticality as she learns to put a good face on difficult situations. Julie Ray’s Annelle seems a bit more seasoned in some ways than the 20-year-old character is supposed to be, but gradually blends into the troupe and provides important humor and pathos as she does.

Director Philip Brickey has a feel for the part of country these women are to come from, and it shows. He uses Suzanne Frederickson’s rather spare set well, and keeps the pace rolling along with a necessary briskness. Jennifer Coffee has created and collected costumes which are good for the characters, though the wigs they wear at various times do not always live up to the demands of a play about a hair salon.

Still, what matters most is the chemistry of the ensemble, and here that increases as the play progresses. “Steel Magnolias” has become a national term since the play and then film swept the country, rather than a specifically southern euphemism, in part because the struggles present were so much more elemental than geographic. The production at WTC will help one remember why. If you go, you will help them celebrate this company’s 95th birthday season.

What: “Steel Magnolias” When: Through March 11, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 5 at 2:30 p.m. Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 adults, $12 seniors, students, children and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“A Christmas Story” the Musical? – Covina Center’s version works up to a point

The Red Ryder BB gun at the center of the nostalgic "A Christmas Story" at Covina Center

The Red Ryder BB gun at the center of the nostalgic “A Christmas Story” at Covina Center

There are several forms of live theater which thrive in this general area. They range from the fully professional, with polished productions and highly trained casts, through the small-stage venues where the community supports seasons aimed at their interests, with a combination of old pros and newer talents working toward making a name for themselves. Then there are the true community playhouses which offer a chance for people who love to perform to do so, nurture children with talent, and do so for the love of the thing on small budgets but large doses of enthusiasm. Sometimes these companies can have rough edges, but there is a genuine quality to the enthusiasm of their audiences and the vibrance on stage which is a core element of what theater is for.

Which brings me to the new production at Covina Center for the Performing Arts. As the holidays close in, and theatrical companies look for something festive to draw a family audience, I always look for the theaters doing something less usual. There will be several renditions of “A Christmas Carol,” of course, but at CCPA they’ve opted instead for a staged, and musical version of a modern classic film. Hence, “A Christmas Story – the Musical”. That tale of Ralphie, a small town midwestern boy in the late 1940s doing everything he can to make Santa deliver a Red Ryder BB gun, has become a holiday staple itself. This live version offers that same simple and nostalgic quality which makes the film charming. Here it is done in true community spirit, with all the energy, but some of the inconsistency, which makes community theater unique.

Jim Follett leads the cast as Jean Shepherd, the narrator of the piece, looking back on the most tangled, but in many ways most wonderful Christmas of his childhood. Tony Quinn gives The Old Man (Ralphie’s dad) the combination of overt frustration and internal warmth which often makes him the quiet hero of the tale. Veronique Merrill Warner sings well, and provides the balance of practicality and kindness which you know makes that household run. Shannon Page also sings well, and has some signature moments, as Ralphie’s teacher.

Among the kids, Jackson Capitano is absolutely perfect as Ralphie’s somewhat goofy friend Flick, and Kaden Cutler makes good as Ralphie’s other pal, Schwartz. Paul Anderson and Sean Hill make decent, if somewhat self-conscious playground bullies. Gilbert Aguirre, as Ralphie’s little brother, makes the snow suit scene a thing of beauty and often shines in even ensemble scenes. The one questionable bit of casting is Ralphie himself. Why did they cast a girl in the part?

Don’t get me wrong, Kiera Ward sings beautifully, and handles the constant spouting of the tongue-twisting “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time” as well as any kid could, but she lacks that sort of rough-and-tumble carriage so stereotypical of boys of the 40s and 50s. Most specifically there is literally no punch to Ralphie’s eventual tussle with the bullies he can no longer take. Rather, she has Ralphie “fight like a girl” when he most needs to completely let go of his bundled frustrations.

This is not Miss Ward’s fault, but must be laid at the feet of the co-directors, Wendy Friedman and especially Osbaldo Alvarado, who teaches acting to youngsters at the acting school next door to the theater. If a girl must be cast, for vocal skills or whatever, then significant movement training should have been part of the gig.

The large surrounding ensemble is enthusiastic and for the most part sings and dances well. The choreography by Emily Dauwalder highlights the skills of the performers, and keeps the company’s tendency to sing while walking back and forth across the front of the stage at bay somewhat. Kudos to the unlisted costumer of the piece, who has recreated period, class and time of year without overdoing it. The functional, multi-piece set is shuffled from scene to scene with lightning quickness by one of the fastest and best “choreographed” group of stage hands I’ve seen in a long time. There’s even a slide for Santa’s rejects, when needed. Tyler Wigglesworth’s musical direction, aided by pre-recorded instrumentals, keeps the musical portions fairly sharp.

In short, “A Christmas Story – the Muslcal” proves entertaining if not perfect. The warmth of the audience is also worthy of note – the kind of an audience which feels so at home someone actually shouted from the audience during the curtain call “That’s my aunt!” when one of the performers came forward. This is what true community theater has always been about. So, what the heck. Go be community. Don’t expect consistent polish, but do expect heart. And around the holidays, that can often count for a lot.

What: “A Christmas Story – the Musical” When: Through December 13 (excluding Thanksgiving weekend), 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $22 general, $32 luxury balcony (website pricing is incorrect) Info: (626) 331- 8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com

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