Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Whittier Community Theatre

Weirdly Fascinating: “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre

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Jessica Taylor Gable and Jason Cook as the soon-to-be-starcrossed lovers of “Prelude to a Kiss” at Whittier Community Theatre [photo: Amy Lauren Gettys]

In a time when so many of the old community theatre companies have disappeared, Whittier’s is remarkable, having opened the second of four shows constituting its 97th straight season. The new production, Craig Lucas’ “Prelude to a Kiss,” is hardly your typical community theater show, but then Whittier has been doing a lot of bending that image lately.

The tale follows the whirlwind romance of Peter and the often pessimistic Rita up to a wedding which, thanks to the appearance of an unknown elderly man, sets their story on an odd trajectory. Is Rita still Rita, or has there been some kind of exchange between Rita and the unknown man? If so, now what?

Jason Cook is  Peter, the boy in this boy-meets-girl fairy story. As such he becomes both protagonist and narrator, and is largely responsible for not only the tone but the tempo of the piece. It takes him a bit of time to warm to this, but once in full swing, he proves as nonplussed and yet desperately hopeful as one could wish. As Rita, Jessica Taylor Gable makes a good foil for Peter’s casual optimism, and switches gears well as the tale becomes more convoluted. In the second half, as more is revealed and things get weirder, both hit their stride in ways which propel the story and capture the audience’s focus.

Also worthy of note are Jose Barajas as Peter’s longtime and rather bland friend, and Nancy Tyler, particularly when playing the elderly man’s concerned daughter. Loriston Scott has some solid moments as a bartender, and Kathryn Hunter and Gary Page make real characters out of Rita’s quirky parents.

Still, it is as that elderly man that Lewis Crouse often nearly steals the show. He manages to balance the weird internal struggles of this dual person, while connecting with the two principals in very interesting ways.

Director Roxie Lee has a sense of what can make this production work and has created real connection between the characters. It all works, with one major exception. In also designing what set there is – mostly furniture which can be moved quickly on and offstage, she has neglected the fact that the stage of The Center Theatre, where they perform, is really quite large. The space defeats the innate intimacy of this piece. Narrowing the entire area would do the show great service, and perk up the first half which is broken too much by the episodic pauses for furniture shuffling.

Still, especially in the second half, “Prelude to a Kiss” proves amusing with an undercurrent of great heart. One word of warning, though. Unlike most community theater fare it has references to sexual fantasies and intimacy which may make it unsuitable for younger children, and those who would be offended by such elements.

Still, it’s worth taking a look, and celebrating a theater which may easily be the longest-running company in Southern California.

What: “Prelude to a Kiss”  When: through November 17, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a Sunday matinee 2:30 November 11  Where: The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier  How Much: $18 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID  Info: (562) 696-0600 or whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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Solid Staging Carries Whittier’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”

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Anthony Michael Frias and Michelle Chaho are Quasimodo and Esmeralda in Whittier Community Theatre’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

It is quite remarkable how many times the Victor Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has been dramatized, in film, on television, and on the stage. Originally written in part to encourage Parisians to appreciate the medieval architecture in their midst, the story has captured the imaginations of generations. This thanks to the drama of that architecture, the general fascination with the colorful life of gypsies, the equal fascination with obsessive and exclusionary religious fervor, and that very peculiar character whose gentle, innocent ugliness has become a metaphor all its own.

Finally, a Disney-produced theatrical has taken the songs and a few fantasy characters from the Disney film, and elements of both the novel and the most popular live action movies, and created a dark and relatively interesting hodgepodge of a musical. Now at the Whittier Community Theatre, it has some true star turns, some interesting quirks, and a couple of stumbles, but has moments worth celebrating.

Director Mark Torreso is also the set designer, and that integration works well, for the most part. Unable, due to the layout of the theater, to have a “pit chorus,” – that is, hidden singers who augment chorus numbers – he has created space for an onstage choir of monks, who look down on the dramatic proceedings when necessary and flesh out the richly dramatic, if startlingly unmemorable, music. This sets the tone for the rest of the work, as the cathedral is ever-present physically even when action takes place outside its doors.

In this atmosphere lives this version of the story, which focuses on the conflict between the self-righteously religious Claude Frollo, who has raised Quasimodo to follow him, and the gypsy Esmeralda, whom Frollo both detests for her beliefs and lusts after in spite of himself. Balanced against this is the returning soldier Phoebus de Martin, whose promotion to captain of the cathedral guards puts him squarely in the center of the conflict, along with Quasimodo, who so appreciates Esmeralda’s warmth toward him that her attraction to Phoebus is painful. And so it goes.

Best of this production is Anthony Michael Frias as Quasimodo. His onstage transformation proves impressive, and his ability to portray a disabled character without ever devolving into caricature makes the show possible. Michelle Chaho makes a charming and tuneful Esmeralda, and Jeff Campbell as Phoebus manages both the devil-may-care playboy and the underlying honorable man well. As the leader of the gypsies, Jason Miramontes exhibits a lightness and panache in what is one of his best performances at WCT.

The puppeteers, who speak and sing for Quasimodo’s friendly gargoyles – Scott Charles Felver, Vanessa Evans, Jasmine Vigil and Scott Silson – make those characters come humorously and connectedly alive. Only WCT veteran Richard De Vicariis seems to struggle with the villainous character of Frollo, particularly when called upon to sing. That, the small and distracting projections, and a way, way too amplified orchestra are really the only awkward elements of the piece.

Be aware that the tale of the “Hunchback” is a dark one. This is not a kiddie show, Disney’s involvement in its creation notwithstanding. There is lust and torment and death, and a rather ferocious condemnation of some religious elements, which, though adapted, are more from Hugo than the adapters. The music advances the storyline well, but you will not go away humming it. Come see what this tale can be like when adapted for stage, but do not expect to leave feeling all is right with the world.

What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. When: through September 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 16. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier  How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors, students and military with ID   Info: (562)696-0600 or www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

The Curious Savage in Whittier: Unique Individuals, Gentle Humor

l. to r.: Richard de Vicariis, Candy Beck and Elizabeth M. Desloge in The Curious Savage at Whittier Community Theatre

For the second play of their 96th season, the Whittier Community Theatre has chosen the gently comic “The Curious Savage” by John Patrick. In a time when the battle between decency and avarice is played out in the news and on all forms of media on a regular basis, the play itself seems particularly apt. The quietly wry wit of Patrick’s play, and its message to humanity, have kept in relevant even as a few other aspects seem somewhat dated.

The setting is 1950, and an institution called The Cloisters – a home for persons who are wrestling with the balance between their hopes and fears and what the world deems as real. Into this calming but unique community arrives Mrs. Ethel Savage, the widow of a wealthy man. She has been placed in The Cloisters by her three step-children, determined to stop her from frittering away the millions they expect to inherit.

Mrs. Savage, having doted upon her husband from an early age, is now determined not only to act out the silly wishes she kept dormant, but to form a fund to let others do the same: an appallingly crazy concept to the determined trio who have committed her.
In The Cloisters, she encounters five damaged but sincere individuals to whom she listens and with whom she develops a unique rapport. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the step-children do not have her best interests at heart, it is these “inmates”, and the doctor and assistant who attend them, who may be able to rise to the occasion and prove her right to her own desires.

Though the WCT production starts a bit slow, it builds into a very likable piece. As the step-children, Gary Page’s pompous US Senator proves sharp and commanding, Frank McCay’s childish judge has just the right whine, and Elizabeth M. Desloge (despite a somewhat unfortunate wig) makes a most focused money-grubber. Richard De Vicariis, as the presiding doctor, manages one of his best, gently underplayed performances. LIkewise, Amy Miramontes proves warmly humane as the attendant nurturing the institution’s inhabitants.

As for the inhabitants, Janet Arnold-Clark makes sweet work of the woman whose fantasy keeps her dead little boy alive, and Jeffrey Buckner-Rodas, as a man convinced he can play the violin, proves both earnest and charmingly suggestible. Carlos David Lopez unwinds gradually as a man so stricken with survivor’s guilt he carries it into self-image, while Cindy Cisneros gives the young girl desperate to deserve love and attention a quirky gusto. Best of the lot is Julie Breihan’s truly funny Mrs. Paddy, who hates everything with a spectacular sulky look and delivery.

Mrs. Savage herself must, rightly, be filled with an energy which powers her ability to connect with her fellow inhabitants, and defines the drive to circumvent her wastrel stepchildren in order to achieve her dreams. Cindy Beck, a WCT regular in a number of capacities, warms to this gradually, so that her best version of Ethel arrives after the intermission. From then on, she commands the proceedings, creating an atmosphere of warmth, and underscoring the play’s central points.

Mark Frederickson’s set makes good use of Whittier Community Center’s long, slender stage, giving a realism to the piece. Karen Jacobsen’s costumes generally, if not precisely, reflect the period. The ending piece – a picture of what the inmates see when they look in the mirror – proves particularly striking, when it arrives.

Director Lenore Stjerne has a feel for the point and the humor of this play. Indeed, the playwright’s abjuration that the “inmates of The Cloisters be treated with warmth and dignity” is obviously focal to her pacing and structuring of the performances. As a result, what one finds is a contrast between dreamers and takers, between human kindness and self-focus. In the end, this may be the most important thing about going to see “The Curious Savage.” Who actually is a savage provides a pointed finger at what so many have or yearn to become.

As part of their annual Thanksgiving drive, bring a non-perishable food item to the box office and receive a free goodie (they have brownies!) at intermission. All contributions will be donated to the local food bank.

What: “The Curious Savage” When: through November 18, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 12 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 adults; $12 seniors (62 and over), juniors (18 and under), students, and military with ID Info: (565) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

They’ve Got the Horse Right Here: “Guys and Dolls” in Whittier

Carlos Lopez and Mallory Kerwin as Nathan Detroit and his long, long-time fiancé Adelaide in Whittier Community Theatre’s rendition of “Guys and Dolls”


Once upon a time, Damon Runyan was a household word. His stories, with their very specific form of dialogue and wry humor, celebrated the gamblers and chiselers of early 20th Century Broadway in a way nobody else has ever matched. Today, most who know of him at all do so thanks to the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls,” based on two of Runyan’s stories by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, and set to music by Frank Loesser.

Now at Whittier Community Theatre, as the first production of their 96th season, “Guys and Dolls” is guaranteed to charm, as always. The songs are always fun, and the storyline is essential urban Americana. At WCT the cast is mostly up to the task of making the show shine, the band, though a bit uneven in timbre, handles the music well, and the flavor of the piece – best called earnest silliness – shows through.

The story follows two paths. In the first, longtime gambling promoter Nathan Detroit searches desperately for a venue for his floating crap game while holding off showgirl Adelaide, who dreams of marriage after 15 years of being Nathan’s fiancé. In the second, Nathan tries to raise funds by betting card sharp Sky Masterson he cannot take Sarah Brown, central figure of the local Save A Soul Mission, to Havana for dinner. What deal will Sky swing to make it happen?

Director Karen Jacobson has assembled a cast of WCT regulars and specific character performers to solid effect. Jason Miramontes makes a comparatively subtle Sky, and handles his songs well, with the exception of the particularly difficult “My Time of Day”. As his challenge, Sgt. Sarah, Ciara D’Anella warms to the part as the show goes on, and at her best sings with considerable charm, particularly on the silly “If I Were a Bell” and “Marry the Man Today.”

Still, the best of this production is the interplay between Nathan and his three minions, and between Nathan and Adelaide. Carlos Lopez gives Detroit the combination of business sense and innocent guile that makes him so endearing. His minions, the three “tinhorns” – Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Benny Southstreet and Rusty Charlie (Jay Harbison, Chris Mathews and Richard De Vicariis) – do a very solid job with the show’s signature introductory trio, “Fugue for Tinhorns” and Harbison continues to charm with “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. All three have engaged with their characters in very solid fashion.

Still, the real star of the piece is Mallory Kerwin, who all but steals the show as Adelaide. Her “Adelaide’s Lament” with its silly contention that being matrimonially frustrated can cause head congestion, is as delightfully silly as one could expect, and her consistent and very funny delivery throughout makes even otherwise dry moments in the show entertaining.

Also worthy of note are James Greene as Sarah’s missionary uncle, Greg Stokes and Justin Patrick Murphy as just edgy enough gangsters, and Andy Kresowski as the prowling Lt. Brannigan. The very versatile chorus manage a number street scenes and crowd moments with individuality and style.

Indeed, more than many other musicals, “Guys and Dolls” depends on dancing. Choreographer Emily Turner does what she can with a comparatively motley group of performers, finding ways to keep the musical moments engaging and atmospheric. Musical director Kevin Wiley manages the live musicians in ways which generally enhances the total production.

In short, this “Guys and Dolls” may have a few shaky moments, but the production is earnest and at times quite delightful. The music is among my favorite in the classic Broadway musical canon, and thanks to a few stirling performances it is one of the finer examples of true community theater in the area. And, frankly, you can’t beat the price. Go, sit back, and revel in the fact that any Southern California company has managed to survive for almost a century.

What: “Guys and Dolls” When: through September 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee 2:30 p.m. September 17 Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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

Dignity and Nostalgia: Fine Cast at Whittier Community Theatre celebrate “The Dining Room”

The cast of "The Dining Room" at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

The cast of “The Dining Room” at Whittier Community Theatre illustrates one use for that iconic part of the house. [Photo: Avis Photography]

Playwright A.R. Gurney’s best work has revolved around the upper-middle class New England of the early to mid-20th Century, either by placing his plays in that space, or among people reminiscent for that time and space. As such, his works become a window on an entire society, with its structures, standards, and mores, which has essentially evaporated in the intervening societal upheavals. Never is this more true than in “The Dining Room,” a set if interlaced vignettes revolving around that once-formal space in a more formal era.

Now finishing a short run at Whittier Community Theatre, “The Dining Room” offers a small group of 8 performers a chance to become a wide array of people, current and historical, inhabiting, reminiscing about, or even rediscovering the value of a home’s formal dining room. If this sounds rather silly, it isn’t. Instead, it is a window on a particular kind of intimacy, observed even in the breach.

Director Candy Beck has brought together a particularly skilled cast, and her near-choreography of their comings and goings makes the transitions from scene to scene and character to character both seamless and easy to follow. It’s a neat piece of direction, as well as a nod to the quality of the versatile performers.

The characters shift quickly, and Keith Bush, Michael Durack, Allison Hicks, Jay Miramontes, Jonah Snyder, Nancy Tyler, Randi Tahara and Veronique Merrill Warner produce a wild collection of family members, visiting professionals, servants and observers. Their interactions, which range from an aged father giving funeral instructions to his son to a little boy sad to hear that his favorite maid is going to stop working for the family, from a college student whose surprise visit home uncovers a family scandal to a couple of teenagers stealing from the liquor cabinet, create a communal portrait of a room and its purpose. The standout among this crowd of fine performers has to be Tahara, most particularly as the aged woman with dementia who doesn’t recognize her own house or her own sons, and as a woman watching her marriage fall apart.

The stories are often poignant, sometimes very funny, and always contain the kind of conversations which tend to happen in this specific room’s formal surroundings. Director Beck has also designed the set, which allows the flow of persons on and off stage, including a number of quick changes, and gives the feel of a large house’s formal dining room.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to see “The Dining Room,” do so. It provides a unique kind of window on a disappearing formality of finger bowls and live-in cooks, table manners and fine china, which is a part of Americana, even if out of reach for most of us. And it will give anyone a greater appreciation for that formal dining table which has been passed down the family. WCT have done themselves proud, making this particular production worth seeing.

What: “The Dining Room” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general; $12 seniors, students, and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“Beauty and the Beast” in Whittier – Great for kids

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in "Beauty and the Beast" [photo: Avis Photography]

Gabriel Borjon and Lencia Kebede waltz in “Beauty and the Beast” [photo: Avis Photography]

Whittier Community Theatre always tackles an ambitious collection of productions, and their 95th season opener is no exception. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” requires a sizable cast, a lot of costumes, and several characters who must be both excellent singers and the embodiment of various archetypes. The show also demands multiple sets, quick changes, a credible orchestra, and attractive choreography. It’s a tall order for a community group to come up with, so it is no shame to admit that there are both hits and a few misses in the WCT production.

The tale is, as the song says, “as old as time” and a consistent morality lesson. Belle is a beautiful, bookish young woman who is an oddity in her provincial French village, as is her inventor father. While the boorish local he-man, Gaston, plots to wed her, Belle sets off to find her father who has disappeared in the forest. There, she encounters an enchanted castle and a brutish beast, and trades her freedom for her father’s. While Gaston works his wiles at home, she becomes increasingly friendly with a beast who turns out to be shy, terrified, and unschooled in either behavior or learning.

The best of the WCT production is Lencia Kebede’s Belle. Beautiful, and gifted with a soaring voice, she embodies the fire, strength and charm the character must have. As the Beast, Gabriel Borjon is subjected to a combination of staging and mic problems which make many of his calmer lines tough to hear, but sings reasonably well and bellows with authority. Fortunately, their chemistry works well, centering the production on their developing romance.

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

John Scoggins as Cogsworth and Eric Cajiuat as Lumiere keep the comedy going [photo: Avis Photography]

Chad Adriano stumps about with appropriate boorishness as Gaston, though much of his charm is implied by the fine performances of his adoring “silly girls”: Jennifer Bales, Mallory Staley, and Meghan Duran. Cesar Carbajal accents this with a very, very good version of Gaston’s minion, LeFou. Still the show is often best served by Eric Cajiuat’s delightful candlestick, Lumiere, John Scoggins’ stuffy, practical clock, Cogsworth, and – particularly when it comes to vocals – Monika Pena’s duster, Babette.

Janet Arnold-Clark overcomes a kind of lopsided costume as the cook and teapot, Mrs. Potts, while Kassius Lake becomes an earnest Chip, her teacup son. Amanda Benjamin holds her own as the wardrobe, Mme. La Grande Bouche. As Belle’s anxious father, Mark Rainey has some fine moments, particularly in tandem with Kebede, while Mark Rosier manages a truly sinister feel as the asylum owner D’Arque. All these are surrounded by an ensemble which rises to the occasion, particularly in the second half’s castle vs village battle, in ways which are both cute and engaging.

Roxie Lee directs with an experienced hand, using the Whittier’s Center Theater stage effectively. The tale is very episodic, particularly at first, and – even with Lee’s necessarily minimalist village sets – seems to take a while to get its rhythm going. When it does, particularly in the second half when Rebecca Schroeder’s choreography has its greatest effect, things sparkle quite a bit. The small orchestra, under Brian Murphy’s steady hand, provides real quality, though sometimes the sheer volume begins to drown out those onstage – another possible mic problem to be overcome.

Still, if you want to see true stage magic, watch the glow in the eyes of the children in the audience. Perhaps the sweetest element of opening night was watching a very little girl in a Belle dress having her photo taken after the show with Kebede, who had crouched down in the signature ball gown to the child’s height. So much happiness there, and what a lovely introduction for that child to the power of live theater.

What: “Beauty and the Beast” When: through September 24, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 adults, $15 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

A Most Silly Mystery: “The Games Afoot” in Whittier

Members of the cast of WTC's "The Game's Afoot" commune over a mystery [photo: Avis Photography]

Members of the cast of WTC’s “The Game’s Afoot” commune over a mystery [photo: Avis Photography]

In 2012, a send-up of the mystery genre by famed comic playwright Ken Ludwig, “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays” won the Edgar from the Mystery Writer’s of America for Best Play. Ludwig, best known for delightfully ridiculous farces like “Lend Me a Tenor,” took that same approach to the classic whodunit, peppering it with references to Sherlock Holmes and his creator, and to Shakespeare. The resulting mashup is now on display at Whittier Community Theater, as the closeout to their 94th season, and it’s a hoot.

Based, in some measure, on the historic figure William Gillette, a famed American actor who became synonymous with Sherlock Holmes around the turn of the last century, the play is set in his castle-like estate in Connecticut. It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, and Christmas Eve. Members of his “Sherlock Holmes” company have come to join him for the holiday, as he recovers from having been shot at the end of a production his iconic play, by a still unknown someone in the audience. Then a most unpleasant theater critic/columnist arrives, sparking ire, unwrapping secrets and generally turning the house on its ear. What will happen next?

Norman Dostal makes a jovial Gillette, relaxed and carefree until the various disasters strike. Kathryn Hunter has fun as Gillette’s fussy and overprotective mother, while Justin Patrick Murphy vibrates with a kind of macho frailty as his fellow actor and best friend. Kensington Hallowell offers a somewhat brittle but practical rendition of this friend’s actress wife. Jay Miramontes and Amanda Joyce round out the house party as the young, recently wedded members of the troupe who carry secrets of their own.

Kerri Malmgren seems to be having the most fun of anyone in the company as the snotty and totally obnoxious columnist, whose mishap sparks much of the action and all of the best comedic moments. Candy Beck becomes the unexpected and rather distractible female detective who descends upon them all as the plot unfolds. All these characters not only deal with a genuine mystery, which has layers itself, but in the farcical silliness which ensues when there is a need to hide a body.

Indeed, under the direction of Suzanne Frederickson, the mystery – though interesting – takes a back seat to those farcical elements, as the piece is often very funny. The pacing is good and the director’s own elaborate stage design offers all the right bits to heighten the humor and move the story along. Costumer Nancy Tyler’s dependence on rather generic formalwear may not be exactly period (the piece is set in 1936) but isn’t exactly out of period either. In short, the whole thing works pretty well, right down to the startling, and very funny surprise ending.

Also possibly interesting to a theatrical historian, the production makes use of elements the real Gillette introduced into the American theatrical landscape: a realistic, fully working set, and sound and lighting effects (in this case, lightning and thunder) to contribute to the sense of drama. Gillette, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually retired from acting in 1932, was considered the first realistic American stage actor. This creates a bit of extra humor for those in the know, as farce as a genre is never very high on realism, nor can its characters be.

So, go take a look. “The Game’s Afoot” is a lighthearted romp, with a couple of interesting plot twists and a lot of humor. It will make a good, and economical way to entertain oneself on a warm summer night.

What: “The Game’s Afoot” When: Through June 18, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Solid “Diary of Anne Frank” Graces Whittier Community Theatre

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The Whittier Community Theatre, now in the midst of its 94th consecutive season, has admittedly had its ups and downs, but when they do something right, they really do it right. Take as prime example their current production of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This deeply touching and absolutely true story of Jewish families hiding from the Nazis in a Dutch attic, as described to her diary by the teenaged Anne, cannot help but be affecting. Now, between casting, pacing and even the set design, WTC has brought the tale to life with an appropriate, clean vividness. As we, this year, mark the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler, the show proves both instructional and endearing.

The tale is part of the modern psyche. After the liberation of western Europe Anne’s father returned to the attic where he, his family and several others had hidden for three years. Among the things left behind was the diary he had given his younger daughter, Anne, as they entered that attic. An aspiring writer, she dedicated long hours to describing their time there, philosophizing about the human race, and dreaming of a time beyond their self-imposed captivity.

Director Lenore Stjerne has gathered a cast of performers who not only embody the characters in that attic with skill, but look the parts as well. Richard De Vicariis, in perhaps his best role, plays Anne’s father Otto, the group’s central organizer and a man intent on keeping his humanity in the midst of claustrophobic human strife. Patty Rangel is Anne’s mother Edith, domestic and practical and desperately trying to maintain a sense of community.

James J. Cox is the somewhat questionable, bitter friend Otto feels he must pay back by bringing to the attic, while Joan Meissenburg makes interesting work of his materialistic, desperate wife. Tim Heaton gives the hermit-like last-minute addition to the group a petulant angst which helps define the tensions of this captive group. Casey Morlet makes a sympathetic Miep, the young woman who continued to supply the group with basic necessities throughout their isolation. John Francis makes Otto’s employee, and Miep’s partner in secrecy, a fragile but dedicated man.

Fitted in with this are the three young people, who define the specific conflicts of energy, desperation and hope. Wesley Mathews makes the shy, introverted Peter into a careful but deep thinker. Brenna Hanlen gives Anne’s older sister Margot a calm fatalism which provides interesting counter-balance to Anne’s optimism. And, as Anne – narrator of her own story and rich optimist about human nature – Gracie Lacey leads the cast in every possible way.

Thanks to Suzanne Frederickson’s set design, which utilizes the large Whittier stage while still giving a sense of the limited attic space, Stjerne can keep the flow going in such a way that one remains enraptured with the story. This is good, because the play is a long one – the first act an hour and a half – but the general quality means you don’t notice the passage of time. The costumes, created and coordinated by Karen Jacobson, accurately reflect time and place. Indeed, this whole production shows an extraordinary attention to detail, and a respect for the content which makes it a success.

In short, this “The Diary of Anne Frank” is most certainly worth seeing. I would also recommend it for young people who may not have been exposed to the book. Personally, my grandmother gave me a copy when I turned 10, with an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is powerful stuff, and as we reach a stage of history where almost all those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust have passed away, it behooves us to take the time to remind ourselves what they went through. Perhaps such remembrances can mean that one day we will reach a world where genocide itself is a thing of the past. Anne Frank seemed to think we might.

What: “The Diary of Anne Frank” When: Through November 21, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 15 Where: Whittier Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Blvd. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $12 students/seniors Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Silly “Little Shop” Lights Up Whittier Community Theatre

Jonathan Tupanjanin and Mallory Kerwin [photo: Avis Photography]

Jonathan Tupanjanin and Mallory Kerwin [photo: Avis Photography]

In the treasure-trove of lighthearted, silly musicals, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors” has to one of the most universally beloved. Based on a “B” horror film by Roger Corman, twisted to be firmly tongue-in-cheek, it becomes a send-up of every element of early 1960s cultural framework. Now the Whittier Community Theatre brings the show to the stage once more, accompanied by a live band and filled with a youthful energy.

The tale is silly from the start. Seymour Krelborn and Audrey work at Mushnik’s Florist Shop on Skid Row. For obvious reasons, the store is struggling until Seymour produces one of his collection of exotic plants – a completely unique piece of vegetation which fascinates the public and makes the shop famous. As they cope with the rising fame, and the unique dietary habits of the plant, Seymour also worries over how to save Audrey from her sadistic boyfriend, and whether the fame he’s achieving is worth the emotional and physical cost.

Director Karen Jacobson has gathered a sharp cast to bring this lovely trifle to life. Jonathan Tupanjanin sings up a storm and looks appropriately nerdy as the hapless Seymour. Mallory Kerwin matches Tupanjanin note for note, and certainly acts the part as the voluptuously innocent Audrey. Richard De Vicaris appears in his element as the crusty, accusatory Mushnik. Matthew Berardi puts his all into the slimy boyfriend who orders Audrey around.

The show’s only major issue, which touches the leads but is most frustrating with the narrating chorus, is the uneven power and effectiveness of the performer’s body mics. Most particularly with the chorus, Mindy Duong’s Chiffon and Gracie Lacey’s Chrystal go back and forth between whose mic is on too loud, and Jenae Denise Thompson’s Ronnette often seems to not have a mic at all, which destroys the classic girl-group harmonies of their signature moments. The performers themselves sing well (though Lacey is sometimes a touch flat) but when you can only hear one of them at a time, the impact is less than stellar.

Sam Maytubby and Steven Sandborn handle the physical maneuvers of the plant life, soon named Audrey II, while Bear C.A. Sanchez gives the plant a dominating voice. The rest of the cast, an ensemble of skid row residents, sing very well, move necessary set pieces when needed, and provide a few cameo parts. Kevin Wiley’s five piece ensemble provides some of the best musical accompaniment I’ve heard at a WCT production. Indeed, with the exception of the mic glitches, the show proves one of the most polished musicals of their recent past.

Kudos go to Mark and Suzanne Frederickson for the set design, which offers a chance for the quick scenic moves so necessary to this fast-paced tale. Patty Rangel and Nancy Tyler provide just the right costumes to make the piece work.

With “Little Shop of Horrors” WCT marks the start of their 94th season. That alone is worthy of recognition. That they should be able to put up an essentially amateur production with the qualities found in this one is both remarkable and deeply satisfying. Go take a look. You’ll laugh a lot, especially if you’ve never seen the show, and help support a venerable institution working to stay relevant long into the future.

What: “Little Shop of Horrors” When: through September 26, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with one matinee at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 20. Where: Whittier Community Theatre, at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students, juniors (18 and under), and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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