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Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

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Community Noir: “Laura” in Whittier

The cast of "Laura" mysteriously appears at Whittier Community Theatre

The cast of “Laura” mysteriously appears at Whittier Community Theatre

Ah, “Noir”. The works of the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with their cynical gumshoes and fatalistic romantic tone, stand apart even today as a special part of American culture. Of these, none is better known than “Laura,” which began life as a story, a novel and then a play, all by Vera Caspary, before becoming an Otto Preminger film.

Now “Laura” returns to the stage in Caspary and Geoge Sklar’s original version at the Whittier Community Theatre. It’s a solid performance – well cast and strongly directed – which shows the polish often-maligned community theater companies can achieve. And there’s that good old mystery to go along with it.

For anyone who doesn’t know somehow, “Laura” is the story of a murder investigation. The detective in charge, Mark McPherson, finds himself fascinated by the victim whose portrait hangs in her apartment. In a story filled with peculiar twists and turns, this detective’s determination to find out the truth both of the murder and of the obviously complex character of victim Laura herself, make for fascinating watching.

Director Suzanne Frederickson has the feel for this piece, and it shows all the way down to the costuming and furniture. She has amassed a cast which manages to fit the various stereotypes required of this kind of story, and with talent enough to make them all human.

As McPherson, Steven Sullivan is the picture of a solid Irish cop, from his sharp eye, a crisp loyalty, and a subtle tugging of the heart. As the man who feels he “created” Laura, Norman Dostal manages the somewhat soft and slimy panache required to make Waldo a disturbing character. Jay Miramontes gives Laura’s fiance an interesting balance of acquisitiveness and fondness, while Candy Beck fusses with great warmth as the loving maid Laura hired and befriended.

Also worthy of note, the mysterious “girl” gets rounded treatment by Amy Anderson, Kieran Flanagan makes nice work of the rebellious teen from down the hall, and Julie Breihan bristles with genuine indignation as his frustrated, heartsore mother. John Francis makes a short, entertaining, but somewhat less believable appearance as a beat cop.

Considering the generally somewhat “low rent” nature of community theaters, which survive on tiny budgets and volunteers both in front of and behind the scenes, this production proves quite delightful. The pacing is good, the tone is right, and the mystery appropriately mysterious. If you’ve never seen “Laura” nobody telegraphs the ending. If you have, it’s a lovely and inexpensive chance to spend time with an old friend.

Although this run is almost over, stay tuned for this company’s next offering: “Charley’s Aunt”, due at the end of May.

What: “Laura” When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, March 1 Where: The Center Theatre, 8730 Washington Ave., in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, and military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“Fiddler on the Roof” in Whittier: An Earnest Rendition of a Timeless Tale

Richard DeVicariis as Tevye in WTC’s “Fiddler on the Roof”

No big shock that the 1960s classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” has stuck around as it has. The music’s blend of Broadway and klezmer has entranced more than one generation by now. The story line’s mesh of fatalistic humor, embattled tradition in the face of change, and humanity in the face of rising evil resonates far beyond the Jewish heritage it celebrates.

The demands of a production of “Fiddler” are fairly specific. Its leads must create strong characters who sing with authority and accuracy. Though most of its cast need only have enough rhythm to handle simple folk dances, four men must be able to pull off the famed “bottle dance” without faking it. Lastly, it must look right: earthen-toned, peasant clothes of the rough cloth of the Russian countryside, complemented by the specific trappings of orthodox Judaism.

In the case of Whittier Community Theatre, most of these demands are met most of the time. The characterizations range from good to very good. The costuming by the trio of Andi Townsend, Roxie Lee, and director Karen Jacobson gives the right feel, and Nancy West’s set pieces move easily allowing the pacing to move quickly – perhaps a bit too quickly.

As director, Jacobson keeps the thing hopping, sometimes pushing through moments of reflection or grief so quickly the audience doesn’t have the usual time to process. This may be because – old fashioned as it is – “Fiddler” is long. Getting the audience out in a timely fashion may be playing a factor.

As for her cast, Jacobson’s looks right, though some of the men struggle vocally. WCT veteran Richard DeVicariis has a lovely time with Tevye, the milkman saddled with five daughters and an ailing horse. DeVicariis makes the man a bit less of a “presence” than sometimes, allowing the rest of the village to literally and societally tower over him more, but it works. Candy Beck makes fine work of the long-suffering Golde, his wife.

As the three elder daughters, Amy Anderson, Rebecca Schroeder and especially Mackenzie Rae Campbell create strong characters and sing with accuracy and some enthusiasm, though one wishes the poignant “Far From the Home I Love” allowed for more father-daughter interaction. One of the great standouts of the company, Jay Miramontes’ Motel the tailor proves sheepishly handsome, delightfully earnest, and impressive as a singer.

Justin Patrick Murphy’s revolutionary student, Perchik, has timing, authority and proves a fine dancer, though he needs to work on support and accuracy during his one essential moment of song. Gabriel Borjon’s gentle Fyedka sings well and keeps his Russian interloper quietly nurturing.

Standouts among the crowd of town folk include Eric Nelson, proud and forthright as the jilted butcher, Ray Merrill, wheezy and myopic as the aged rabbi, and Andy Kresowski, apologetically authoritative as the local Constable tasked with unsavory government orders. Summer Shippy has a lovely time in the dream sequence as Grandma Tzeitel. Murphy and three other young men do a fabulous job of the wedding dance, making all of the signature moves and never losing a bottle. It really is quite impressive, sparking spontaneous applause.

All of this is accompanied by a live orchestra of seven. As is often true of community theaters with volunteer musicians, their talents are somewhat varied, but under the leadership of Bill Wolfe they display enough vitality to keep the thing musical.

In short, though this “Fiddler on the Roof” may not be perfect, it is quite heart-felt. The jokes are still funny. The people are still touching. The staging – most especially that moment at the end when they must abandon all they have – proves visually satisfying. All in all, the good outweighs the imperfection most of the time. Most certainly, you will go home humming that music. How could you not?

What: “Fiddler on the Roof” When: Through September 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Sept. 16 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $18 adults, $15 seniors and juniors (18 and under) Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

It’s “Good News” – Whittier Community Theatre turns 90

The cast of "Good News" do The Varsity Drag

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

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