Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Whittier Community Theatre

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

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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

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

“Rumors” Has It… Mostly… in Whittier

The men of Whittier Community Theatre's "Rumors" use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

The men of Whittier Community Theatre’s “Rumors” use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

In the long and impressive line of theatrical comedies by Neil Simon, few really qualify as farces. To be a farce the story isn’t really about rounded people, but about the silly juxtaposition of persons in compromising situations with unforeseen events. For Simon, the comedy was usually more organic, even when the results were very silly: the people and their personalities underscored the humor. Indeed, as his career progressed, it was much more about the people than the laughter and the plays became more real, more nuanced, and more powerful.

However, Simon did write one genuine, door-slamming, mistaken-identity-filled farce. Now that play, “Rumors” is at the Whittier Community Theatre, and the results are – for the most part, anyway – just as funny as they should be. The actors play the over-the-top characters with great energy and style. The setting is as fraught with exhausting drama as it should be, and the results are very funny. If, on occasion, the pacing of the comedic lines slows a bit, that is something that can be overcome.

Four couples arrive, in stages, at the home of a fifth couple having an anniversary celebration. Mystery ensues, as the help has disappeared, as has the woman of the house, and her husband is found upstairs, offstage, stunned and bleeding from a gunshot wound. As the first couple to arrive tries to cover for the disaster, gradually aided or thwarted by the rest as they arrive, the misconstructions, fabrications and frustrations wrap the eight guests in a series of ridiculous situations. And then the police arrive.

This whole silliness is led in every way by Jay Miramontes and Michelle Pedersen as the Gormans, first uncovering the mystery then balancing hair brained schemes with careful coverups, aided on occasion by more than enough vodka and a real sense of performance polish. Kerri Malmgren and Jason Falske provide the next comic element as a calm society woman and her husband, so obsessed over the accident which has damaged his brand new Mercedes the house’s mysteries are just an additional frustration.

The warm and homey Cleta Cohen and Richard DeVicariis provide the practical element, comparatively nonplussed by the silly situation and focused on more basic needs of the rest of the thwarted party-goers. Michael Moore and most particularly Lindsay Marsh provide yet one more layer as the politician who can’t be associated with the obviously developing scandal and his paranoid wife devoutly sure her husband is full of scandals anyway.

Under the direction of Justin Patrick Murphy, this silly piece starts just a bit slow, but seems to rev up as the stage fills. Every once in a while someone, particularly Moore, seems to wait just a bit long in a play whose lines must consistently appear with whipcrack speed, but the comedy definitely wins out and the characterizations are strong and a lot of fun. Kudos to Amy Miramontes for gathering clothing just right for the kind of evening these characters are expecting and the kind of people they are. The costumer doubles, along with Andy Kresowski, as the stern and precise police duo who show up trying to sort out the craziness.

In short, this “Rumors” is a lot of fun. I admit to being rather a fan of farces, as a particularly carefree way to slough off the pressures of the everyday. This one is definitely worth a look, and, in the hands of this company of players, stays satisfyingly silly to its unpredictable but equally funny end.

What: “Rumors” When: Through June 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 7 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 Adults, $10 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

I Want to Laugh More! – Inconsistency of focus mars WCT’s “Johnny Guitar the Musical”

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

Johnny Guitar at Whittier Community Theatre

Over the past couple of years, one of the last of the strongly supported community playhouses, the all-volunteer Whittier Community Theatre, has produced several spunky productions of American musicals. Most particularly, their “Into the Woods” was quite stunning, and shows like “Quilters,” and “The Pajama Game” have garnered worthy praise. Thus, when I saw that their new production of the spoof of classic westerns, “Johnny Guitar,” leaves much to be desired, it does not come from the company’s amateur status, but from a misread on the part of those organizing the production.

“Johnny Guitar,” by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Joel Higgins, and Martin Silvestri, takes the standard western formats and, if done right, plays them all with tongue firmly in cheek. Even the story sounds like all the B-westerns from the heyday of such things. Miss Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a bar outside a small western town – a town operated in tandem by Emma, the daughter of the founder of the town bank, and McIvers, the area’s largest landowner and rancher. Emma, holding a secret passion for the outlaw The Dancing Kid, is out to destroy Vienna for her supposed romantic connection to the Kid. Into all of this rides a man of height and heart bearing a guitar instead of a gun. But does he have a more violent past? Will he help Vienna?

Yes, it’s just that silly, and the staging should add more. Sound effects must be huge, choruses should appear from behind rocks, furniture, curtains, etc. Everything must be played large and melodramatically, resulting in almost constant chuckles and some significant outright laughter. Visual comedy can be emphasized, like constant references to Johnny’s being so tall, when the actor is not. It should be fast-paced, and moderately ridiculous. That’s what makes it work.

The production at WTC can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is going to play the thing straight, and thus awkwardly, or live up to the wry humor of the script. At the start, it shows promise, when the opening ballad has the chorus suddenly pop out from behind the saloon bar, and continue singing unphased when one of their number is gunned down. The sound effects are right, and the minimalist set has just the right elements. Some of the cast – most especially Jonathan Tupanjanin, as the youngest of the outlaws – can really sing up a storm, and for the most part all sing with enough energy and conviction to make it work.

But it’s uneven. They get serious too often, and that seriousness slows things down. Sometimes the chorus sings from offstage, when having them appear, sing, and disappear would have given more stage business, and more comedy to something which begins to feel drawn out.

As Vienna, Mallory Kerwin has the heart for the thing, and a powerful voice, but is visually wrong. She should look like a slightly more risqué Miss Kitty (for old “Gunsmoke” fans) but spends much of her time in an outfit more suitable to Dale Evans. Matt Berardi has great potential as Johnny. He has the swagger and the overly cool delivery down. There could be much comedy, though, as in his “playing” of a guitar which obviously has no strings, which is otherwise just kind of awkward.

Lindsay Marsh is solid – that is, slightly overdramatic and intensely repressed, just as she should be – as the vicious Emma, while Greg Stokes makes a stolid and gruff McIvers. Jay Miramontes truly enjoys his role as The Dancing Kid, though the dancing should be emphasized more, particularly if it’s going to be as intentionally unimpressive as it appears when he finally performs. Justin Patrick Murphy, Andy Kresowski and Richard DeVicariis have a lovely time playing henchmen, posse members, bartenders and the like, and, joined with Tupanjanin, becoming the chorus for song after song.

The live band accompanying them is small but good. The mics need to be balanced more, as some (especially Kerwin’s) are cranked up too high while others are very hard to hear. Special kudos to the stage crew who utilize the elements of Mark Frederickson’s very facile set design to change scene quickly and keep the pace going.

In short, this is good enough that it should have, and could have, been better. Consistency in the over-the-top melodrama of the piece would have let to more laughter (though there definitely were some funny moments) and made it all feel more cohesive. Director John S. Francis is experienced enough to know that this. What this show needs is real tongue-in-cheek everything, as the story line is just as light as the old Saturday serials, and the music is memorable more as a satire on musicals and westerns than as great art. Still, this company deserves the community’s support. Community theater, where volunteerism is prized, is always worth supporting.

What: “Johnny Guitar the Musical” When: Through March 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 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

“Charley’s Aunt” at Whittier: Take an old favorite, add zing, and enjoy

The cast of "Charley's Aunt" at Whittier Community Theatre, in a period-style portrait

The cast of “Charley’s Aunt” at Whittier Community Theatre, in a period-style portrait

Just as with film, some older stage comedies easily stand the test of time. Nobody objects to a new, albeit period, production of “Harvey” or “Arsenic and Old Lace” because they are genuinely funny. The same is true for less-often revived works as well, as long as they are approached as if new – that is, approached with the same zest that performers would give a brand new joke. The rule of thumb is, always, that one cannot expect something with a long reputation of being entertaining to continue to be so without human energy and commitment.

This is hard on less experienced performers or companies, where some performers may let the script drive the show while others are more in charge. Take, as an example, the production of “Charley’s Aunt” at the Whittier Community Theatre. The silly, cross-dressing comedy has been beloved for over 120 years, having originally opened in London in 1892. As such, the wit has the same formality one hears in Oscar Wilde, and comes from the same ethos. Yet, the humor reaches the audience through emotional connection and vitality in the playing of it. At Whittier, this verve is unevenly present. A little charging up of a few characters is almost all that is needed for the piece to shine.

The story has a good foundation for humor. Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham, two Oxford undergrads, have fallen in love. The objects of their affection, Kitty and Amy, are the niece and ward of a stuffy solicitor who would never see his way to letting the girls be alone with two college men. Fortunately, on the date they hope to meet for lunch, Charley’s benefactor and aunt – whom he has never met – is due to arrive. Then she doesn’t.

To keep the tryst from dissolving, the boys talk fellow student Lord Fancourt Babberley into dressing up as an old woman and playing the wealthy, widowed aunt. The plot thickens as the solicitor, as well as Jack’s father, both make plays for the elderly woman in order to solidify their fortunes. And then, of course, a very aunt-like woman arrives with her own ward in tow.

Let’s face it, a guy dressed up as a woman but wanting to be a guy is just funny. Kieran Flanagan, as the increasingly reluctant Lord Babberley is absolutely the best thing in the WCT production, in part because he has all the best bits. Andrew Cerecedes, as Charley, does frustration and panic very well, and Austin Sauer, as Jack, certainly looks the part of an Oxford man, though he sometimes needs to evince a bit more excitement.

Anthony Duke does well as Jack’s proud but somewhat impoverished father. Tim Heaton plays the solicitor as such a dunderhead it all ends up in a comic “sameness.” Jim Gittelson as Jack’s “scout” or in-house servant should be tying everything together with lively commentary about his betters, but instead sometimes slows the action down with his formality. Nancy Tyler as the mysterious arrival, brings the speed back up, and Jasmine West, Amanda Riisager and Louisa Brazeau play the sweet innocent young ladies to the hilt.

Which is all to say that, at its core, this is a fine production. It just needs a little juice. Tightening and energy will bring it back to the level people have been laughing at all these years. Director Roxanne Barker has a long history in community theater, and knows how to make that happen, but needs to make certain that it does.

One possible issue, at the start, has to do with the set, whose design is uncredited in the program. The standard housing of an Oxford man at that time would have been comparatively cramped, but in a noble attempt to create a set allowing a series of very quick changes, Jack’s is vast – and the humor to be gained with a small space full of panicky young men is lost. On the other hand, the set’s two other aspects work well with the script, so perhaps that is the gain to this particular loss. In a positive note, a strong nod goes to Lois Tedrow who once again supplies a host of reasonably period costuming.

In the end, “Charley’s Aunt” is long for a modern theater-going audience, but the WCT production is often quite engaging. A bit more zip and the evening will fly by. In general, it is good to see a play which has been so loved for so long up on its feet again. And that may be one of the purposes of a place like Whittier Community Theatre – itself the oldest continually operating community theatrical group west of the Mississippi River.

In that vein, one must also tender respect for WCT’s recent loss. Deac Hunter, who was busily playing supporting roles onstage as recently as this season, passed away in March at age 92. A longtime WCT member, he was the kind of person community theater is built on. If you go to the performance, look for a lovely remembrance in the program. Even as just an audience member, I will miss him.

What: “Charley’s Aunt” When: Remaining performances 8 p.m. June 13 and 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, juniors, and those with military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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