Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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On the short list of 20th century playwrights whose work I love in part because if their rich use of language, James Goldman is right up there. Take, as example, his play “The Lion in Winter.” In many ways it proves very talky, but this drama pitting King Henry II of England against his sons, his imprisoned wife, and the King of France remains a constant favorite because the characterizations are rich, and the talk is clever, fast-paced and unrelentingly poetic. It’s a feast for the both the imagination and the ear.
Yet this can all careen off the tracks if the pace is too slow, or broken up too much. Heat drives this play, and heat onstage dissipates quickly if not constantly fed. Which brings me to the new production at Whittier Community Theater. The cast is, particularly in the two most central parts, excellent. The costuming and feel of the piece are right. But constant breaks in the pacing, caused by the need to move furniture between each one of the short vignette-like scenes, make it excruciatingly long. In the process, that elemental heat cools.
This is fixable, but it will take some creative restaging along the way. That would be wonderful, because rather than listening to an audience groan at the length, it would be terrific to be able to embrace this show for all the things it does right. They are many.
William Crisp makes a terrific Henry – playing the elaborate game of political competition with relish, bringing a consistency to this medieval king even as he is wound-able, strong, afraid of aging, and admiring of intellect equal to his own. Candy Beck tackles the prodigious Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, nemesis, equal, and prisoner let out for Christmas. In a subtle supporting role, and despite a somewhat questionable wig, Jamie Sowers proves on a par with these two powerful and powerfully played characters as the young Alais, sister to the King of France, raised at Henry’s court to be the next queen, yet become Henry’s mistress. Her subtle strength makes her less of a pawn than often played, leading to a particular inclusion in this fascinating trio.
The portraits of Henry’s three sons are a bit variable, though they power the piece when necessary. Colin McDowell’s Richard the Lionheart manages the mix of fragility and power necessary, but tends to deliver his lines in a comparatively hollow tone. Jonathan Tupanjanin makes Prince John just as much a spoiled child as is necessary. Thanks to one mention of his being pimply in the script, he has been given facial spots which look like large measles or major melanomas, and are very distracting. Acne is a bit more subtle, even onstage.
Brandon Ferruccio makes middle son Geoffrey as frankly devious as can be, becoming the most memorable of the sons. Despite another odd wig, Luke Miller makes the young king of France subtly mature and even more subtly as devious in his own way as Geoffrey. It’s an interesting take on the character.
Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are to be celebrated for finding costumes which truly fit the characters and the time period. Set designer Mark Frederickson has created the impression of a medieval castle, which sets the tone, but as used may also be creating much of the problem.
In the hands of director Lenore Stjerne, every scene is centrally staged, and uses the entire set. This means that between each scene lights dim, stagehands come out and move furniture, place or replace candles, hang tapestries, etc. – a project which can take 3 minutes or so. That’s too long, as pacing is key to effectiveness in this play. The use of “trucks,” which allow the quick wheeling in and out of setting pieces, or simply isolating some scenes in one part of the stage which is preset for the purpose, would solve this show’s one major problem and let people go home about a half hour earlier.
And that would be good, because this version of “The Lion in Winter” is definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances of the two leads. Hopefully the timing glitches will be solved by the start of the second weekend.
What: “The Lion in Winter” When: through November 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday November 16 Where: The Center Theater, Whittier Community Center, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
The musicals of the post-WWII years can be a fascinating window on American society at the time. Suspiciously anti-social rock stars were followed by swooning teens and made household words by Ed Sullivan. Corporations were endemic, and the fodder for satire. Unions were virtuous, not to mention victorious when fighting unreasonable management.
That last, of course, was best exemplified in the charmingly silly musical “The Pajama Game,” now enjoying a brief but spirited revival at the Whittier Community Theatre. I have a personal fondness for the show, though I know it is now seen as somewhat obscure. Still, even if it isn’t familiar to you, the score probably is, featuring hits like “Hey There,” “Hernando’s Hideaway,” and “Steam Heat.”
The story is simple enough: Sid, a young and handsome factory supervisor who’s new in town, falls for Babe, the head of the union’s grievance committee. As a strike nears, their romance runs into conflict with the management-union struggles of the pajama factory where they both work. Other office workers dabble in romance, rage with jealousy, or just look on with wry amusement.
At Whittier, this “Pajama Game” has much to recommend it, even if there are a few weak spots. Amy Miramontes is charming as Babe, with an aura of worldly-wise sophistication and a charming voice. As Sid, Jason Miramontes (Amy’s husband) proves handsome and energetic, creating a charming version of this often rather wooden character, though he needs to work just a bit on pitch when he sings. Beyond the leads, the standout, if brief, performance has to be Eric Nelson as Babe’s tolerant,. charmingly uncomplicated Pop.
Other performers worthy of particular note are Tina Quick-Snedaker as Sid’s wise and motherly secretary, Justin Patrick Murphy as the lascivious union Prez, Greg Stokes as the wildly emotional time-study man Heinzie, and Jeri Harms as the intense, sensual corporate secretary Gladys – over whom Heinzie hovers. Isabella Ramirez, Becca Schroeder and Jennifer Bales do a reasonably Bob Fosse-style “Steam Heat” – the particular triumph of Schroeder’s choreography.
Indeed, the entire cast proves likable, even if there are moments of varying skill.
Director Roxie Lee has taken this episodic tale and kept the pacing moving, thanks in part to her self-designed, minimalist set. She keeps the characters earnest and well connected to each other, which adds to the flow. Musical director Brian Murphy succeeds in celebrating the sheer tunefulness of this show, including putting together a solid orchestra. Karen Jacobson gets a major nod for managing convincingly period costuming on a community theatre budget.
In short, “The Pajama Game” is a window on another time and another ethos. It is tuneful and endearing, and lets a younger generation know that those old folks weren’t quite as pure as it may seem. And it’s fun. You will easily find yourself humming the tunes as you leave, and wondering what happened to the whole universe in which this little tale takes place.
What: “The Pajama Game” When: Through September 20, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
When signature performances appear on screen, even if they are recreating roles from the stage, those performances can become a huge barrier to creativity among stage productions which follow. Even reviewers can fall victim, including the former editor of mine who condemned a brilliant new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” because the show’s lead didn’t deliver the lines as Elizabeth Taylor had.
It’s especially tough on community or semi-professional companies, where the easy fallback position for a director is sometimes to “do it like the movie.” This is why the recent production of “On Golden Pond” at Whittier Community Theater, which closed this past weekend, proved so refreshing. Each character was well-defined and well played, in a show with pacing which kept it interesting, often funny, and as touching as it should be. And nobody was “being” Henry or Jane Fonda, or Katharine Hepburn.
The tale of an aging, intellectually interesting couple at their summer cabin on the lake creates a particular opportunity for older actors to sink their teeth into characters outside the typical. Indeed, at Whittier, Eric Nelson created the essential Norman Thayer, crusty and morose with a soft underside he keeps well hidden. You can’t help but like him, just a bit – a necessity for the plot to move forward, but trickier to accomplish that one imagines.
Roxanne Barker, as Norman’s wife Ethel, created one of the finer performances of her recent career – precise, with an underlying warmth, but underplayed to match the mood of the play. Elizabeth Lauritsen’s version of their angsty, damaged adult daughter gave a well-examined view of a woman gradually righting her own ship, and Ronan Walsh pegged the preteen boy Norman warms to, making that relationship’s growth seem absolutely natural.
Andy Kresowski managed to avoid stereotype as the local guy once enamored of the Thayer daughter, making him far more genuine and less dim than sometimes portrayed. In a brief but important moment, Dave Edwards created a convincingly nervous yet resolute version of the man helping sort out the daughter’s life.
Kudos also to the set design of Mark Fredrickson, whose cabin proved so convincing you expected birds to fly by the windows. Yet, the feel of the entire production, from the ensemble spirit, through the unique renditions of characters made iconic on film, to the whole tone of subtle upbeat land at the feet of director Roxie Lee. Again, this is one of her finer moments, as it is for many in the small cast.
“On Golden Pond” can be sentimental bordering on goopy if done poorly. The Whittier production tread that fine line well. As one of the few remaining viable community theaters, now in its 92nd season no less, it bodes well for the future that this quality of performance can be expected there.
Next on the Whittier Community Theater list is the noir classic – also a famous film – “Laura,” due to open on Valentine’s Day. One hopes that they can keep going with this “new view of old classic” style, making that piece as much their own as they did “On Golden Pond.”
Through much of the 20th century, a significant percentage of the local or small theater productions available in the greater Los Angeles area were produced by “community theater” groups. These groups often had dedicated memberships, governing boards, and found or built spaces to produce amateur productions of popular plays (or, in one case, original works gleaned from around the country) within their own communities.
Indeed, even the venerable Pasadena Playhouse, which became the most celebrated school of performing arts in the western U.S. in its heyday, began as the Pasadena Community Playhouse – a community theater. But times have changed. Almost all of those groups are gone now, along with the orange and lemon groves emblematic of a smaller Southern California.
That doesn’t bother Whittier Community Theatre, which celebrates its 90th birthday this season. To underscore their longevity they begin this banner period with a musical popular during their first decade. “Good News,” better known today for the June Allyson film, remains the classic 20s look at college life: recently co-ed, focused on football, and hopping with Charleston-dancing, hooch-drinking young people.
The new WCT production manages a spare budget well, and froths with innocent energy. The voices of those onstage vary, as does their dancing ability, but nobody can downplay their enthusiasm. In a story like this one, that is the primary requisite.
The tale is as silly as they come. Tom Marlowe, football star of Tait College, won’t be able to play in the championship game unless he passes his astronomy exam. Much waits on this game, as his rich girlfriend’s family readies to invest millions in Tait’s athletics programs upon Marlowe’s win. All that stands in the way is an exam given by the erstwhile love interest of the coach. Perhaps Tom’s girl’s cousin, a poor but academic girl, can tutor Marlowe to astronometrical victory. Perhaps she has more in common with Tom than that rich and manipulative girlfriend. The plot thickens.
Gabriel Borjon is solid if a bit pedantic as the stalwart Tom. Katherine Gutierrez is all self-focus as his girl, and Veronique Warner stands tall as his astronomy professor nemesis. Greg Stokes’ coach starts slow but seems to flourish as the tale develops. Natalie Miller needs to watch the conductor and listen to the orchestra more, but has considerable charm as the comparatively geeky tutor.
Still, the real delights of this show are the secondary players. Jay Miramontes has a ball with the third string football player desperate not to end up on the field. Heather Neinast manages the best of the dance sequences as a flapper introducing “The Varsity Drag.” Ben Otis makes neat work of the geeky water boy, and Jerry Marble’s superstitious team manager offers considerable comedy. Add to these chorus member Ruben Renteria, who becomes central and interesting in any dance number he’s involved in, and the sum total has much to recommend it.
Brian Murphy gives the musical direction of an amateur orchestra which holds up its end nicely. Lindsay Martin’s choreography evokes the correct time period, and director Roxie Lee (who seems to be WTC’s go-to director of musicals) gives the thing the right, mildly 20s-stagy feel. A special nod to costumers Nancy Tyler and Karen Jacobson who made very convincing silk purses out of a variety of sow’s ears.
In short “Good News” has a somewhat self-conscious innocence, but it’s still rather charming to look back at a time when a football game was a crisis and this was a standard type of entertainment. There are a few great period tunes (“You’re the Cream in my Coffee” and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” to name a few), some wildly enthusiastic dances, and a general gee-whiz quality which proves quite entertaining.
And, when you think about it, it’s worthwhile just to celebrate a theater company of dedicated amateurs who have managed to surf all the cultural changes of the Southland and arrive at their 90th year. From such places many talented professionals have grown.
What: “Good News” When: through September 24, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 18 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 2630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $18 general, $15 students 18 and under/seniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org