Arts In LA

Archives 2018

Daddy Long Legs
International City Theatre

In the early 1900s and beyond, a series of coming-of-age books were written for girls that portrayed spunky, independent characters. With appellations like The College Girl Series or The Outdoor Girls, they generally included romance, as well as some light social commentary.
   Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs fits into this category, and because the writing is witty and appealing, it has endured over the years in many variations. In 2007, John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) adapted the story at Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Calif., and it has become a popular two-person epistolary production.
   Jerusha Abbott (Ashley Ruth Jones) has grown up in an orphanage with no knowledge of her origins. Her name was selected by Miss Lippett from the phone book and a gravestone. At play’s opening, Jerusha bemoans her fate, “The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home,” when she is summoned to learn that she has a benefactor who will pay for her to go to college based on her teachers’ opinions that she is a fine writer and should be further educated. She catches a glimpse of his shadow, and his tall lanky image causes her to dub him Daddy Long Legs. She is instructed to write him a letter each month detailing her progress, but she is cautioned that he will never respond to her in return.
   Her letters are lively and intrigue her benefactor, Jervis Pendleton (Dino Nicandros). Against his better judgment he arranges to meet her through his niece, classmate Julia, but he remains incognito. Over the course of her college life, he sees Jerusha and falls in love. The dilemma is how to reveal himself.

In International City Theatre’s adaptation by director Mary Jo DuPrey, the musical exchanges take place as Jervis and Jerusha reveal her letters with both actors delivering the dialogue. On the same stage and often in close proximity, their evolving relationship is presented with the letters but also as a young couple learning to know each other face-to-face.
   From the rear of the stage, musical director Bill Wolfe (piano), accompanied by Blake Baldwin (guitar) and Daniel Smith (cello), enhances the storyline in the nearly sung-through play. The music and often humorous lyrics enliven the predictable story as each character matures intellectually and personally.
   Jones is delightful vocally as she portrays the naive young woman’s budding interest in learning and frustration as she pours out her heart to the graying old man of her imagination. Jones’s spirited transformation from unsophisticated miss to confident young woman gives the story resonance.
   Though Nicandros belies the physical image of Daddy Long Legs and is far from old, he more than makes up for that deficiency with a strong voice. As directed, both characterizations are largely effective because of the talent of the principals. The poignant “Like Other Girls” effectively showcases Jerusha’s orphan status and sets the scene for her growth. Also lively is Jervis’s “She Thinks I’m Old.” “The Secret of Happiness” weaves throughout both acts as the two characters explore their growth and maturation.
   Ellen Lenberg’s simple scenic design consists of a bed (orphanage and college) and a desk (office of Jervis). Both serve to center the characters as their stories unfold. Donna Ruzika’s lighting design and Dave Mickey’s sound are effective.
This production is an idyll in the canon of musical theater. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it follows Webster’s book much more carefully than several other adaptations, including the 1955 movie starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Touches of humor and the right amount of romantic tension make this production a durable choice for ICT’s 33rd season of Hope, Humor, and Heart.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
February 26, 2018
The Manor
Greystone Mansion

To the plaintive strains of orchestral underscoring and an expository welcome delivered by the family butler, a collection of ghostly figures enters the hall-like living room of the Tudor Revival-style Greystone Mansion. Over the next two hours, the audience is treated to the 16th-annual incarnation of playwright Katherine Bates’s extraordinarily engaging “environmental” production. Moving throughout five separate locations in this 55-room, 47,000-square-foot monument to architectural excess, we witnesses, split into three apportioned groups, follow a storyline that must have been an astonishing challenge to commit to paper.
   This semi-biographical adaptation is cleverly constructed. It draws upon the 1929 true-life tragedy, ruled a murder suicide, that befell Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr., who was given Greystone as a gift by his father, oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, and Ned’s secretary, Hugh Plunket. It weaves in the elder Doheny’s involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which stained the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Bates’s mythical family, the MacAlisters, suffers no less a calamitous outcome.
   Director Martin Thompson handles this intertwined set of multilayered plot points and his cast of 12 with seemingly relative ease. The season-opening performance felt a bit measured throughout the first act as though the cast and various technical personnel involved, led by stage manager Don Solosan, hungered for an actual audience to get a true feel for the timing of so many scenes playing out simultaneously. By the second act, however, the downward spiral of the MacAlisters and all within their sphere of influence graduated from merely intriguing to downright captivating.

Heading up this fictitious family is Darby Hinton, as Charles MacAlister, and Carol Potter, as his second wife, Marion. Hinton and Potter have a lovely chemistry that hinges on the love and support each of their characters offers the other particularly in the play’s darkest moments. As their son, Sean, and new daughter-in-law, Abby, whose wedding day kicks off the play, Sol Mason and Annalee Scott bring vibrancy to the proceedings.
   Abby’s father, Frank Parsons, sharply essayed by director Thompson, is the MacAlister family’s lawyer. As the plot thickens, Parsons has his work cut out for him defending his clients against federal prosecutions, which parallel those faced by the Doheny dynasty. The crimes surround a bribe required by MacAlister’s former partner, Alfred Winston, now an influential U.S. senator, in exchange for gold mining rights. Brought to life with evocative sliminess by Daniel Leslie, Winston’s good-old-boy persona provides cover for the machinations of a razor-sharp tactician. His wife, Cora, given a beautifully sympathetic turn by Melanie MacQueen, is caught up in the increasing circle of victimhood due to her husband’s criminal dealings.
   Adding more fuel to the fire are Mikel Parraga-Wills and Kira Brannlund as Gregory Pugh, the Parsons’ handyman, and his Cockney-accented wife, Henrietta Havesham Pugh, a former music hall chorine. As the tale progresses and the stakes are upped, Parraga-Wills does a yeoman’s job of portraying his character’s ever-increasing mental deterioration. Meanwhile Brannlund humorously brings to life her alter ego’s gold-digging fixations.
   Finally, special kudos to perhaps the three most instrumental members of this talented ensemble: Daniel Lench as James, the Butler; Katherine Henryk as Ursula, the Housekeeper; and Esther Richman, Ellie, the mute Maid. This trio serves as the production’s tour guides, handing off and ushering the three groups of audience members to and from each location. Their duties require constant vigilance concerning the synchronization of the various scenes, which, by the nature of this show, are performed three times so as to be seen by the entire audience.

To preserve the denouement, suffice it to say that Lench’s closing address accompanying what plays out before the audience, once again reconvened in the living room, induces goosebumps and serves as the perfect capper to this Shakespearean drama.

Reviewed by Dink O'Neal
January 18, 2018

Disney’s Aladdin
Pantages Theatre

The stage production of Disney’s Aladdin, now playing at the Pantages, is charismatic family programming that highlights the 1992 film’s score by Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and the late Howard Ashman, with additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin. But the evening cannot compete with the grandeur and limitless nature of animation, nor can it reincarnate the film’s greatest special effect, the gargantuan portrayal of the Genie by the late Robin Williams.
   In fictional Agrabah, a fanciful Middle Eastern city, a street hustler (Adam Jacobs) finds a genie (Michael James Scott) in a magic lamp who grants him three wishes that he uses to charm his true love, the princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). If only he can thwart the evil Jafar (Jonathan Weir) and his sidekick Iago (Reggie De Leon) from exposing him for their own nefarious machinations.
   The score features all the great songs from the film: “A Whole New World,” “Prince Ali,” and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “Friend Like Me.” The new songs, some written specifically for the stage show, fit the original style and are welcome additions. “Proud of Your Boy,” which had been written for the movie by Menken and Ashman before being cut, ranks with the beloved princess who long songs like “Part Of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast.
   Chad Beguelin’s book is problematic, mostly because the added characters add no dimension. Aladdin’s friends Babkak, Omar, and Kassim have several fun numbers (two, like “Proud of Your Boy,” had been written by Ashman during the film’s genesis), but their characterizations are of thin architypes. They are given too much stage time not to be fully fleshed people. The villains have been rewritten to be bland and feckless. Though much of their dialogue comes from the movie script, here Beguelin (book and lyrics) keeps the conversations between Aladdin and Jasmine charming and heartfelt. Weir projects zero menace as Jafar, and De Leon is so wishy-washy one wishes for Gilbert Godfrey to reprise his film role.

Jacobs is winning as the title character, a role he originated on Broadway. With a grin wide enough upon which to project a Cinerama movie, Jacobs balances the boy’s coyness, desperation, and good-heartedness. McCalla is empowered as the princess who follows her heart and mind, not the laws written to imprison her. Scott is as suave as a gambler from Guys and Dolls, doing his best to shatter the image of Robin Williams, but he feels earthbound, particularly when repeating lines Williams launched into outer space. Not the fault of his performance, but the Genie doesn’t carry the show as he does in the movie.
   Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is inventive and rollicking, borrowing from Middle Eastern, Bollywood, and Broadway techniques. His direction keeps the musical moving to a jazzy beat. But he doesn’t go grand enough. The show needs more razzle-dazzle, more magic. The ensemble is too small, particularly in the “Prince Ali” number as well as other crowd scenes. Even with the same size cast, Nicholaw could have found innovative ways to simulate a cast of thousands as Harold Prince did in the Masquerade number of Phantom of the Opera or even in a goofy way like Tommy Tune had with his football players/cheerleaders in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Though the director has the ensemble change clothes and run back into the procession, once everyone gathers on stage, the number feels too intimate.
   Gregg Barnes’s costumes are stylish and colorful. He utilizes the breakaway effect well. Bob Crowley’s sets are ordinary and seem like 1950s painted backdrops, except for the Genie’s lair for the Act 1 finale, which evokes depth and splendor. Illusionist Jim Steinmeyer has one ace up his sleeve, and it’s a doozy. It’s impossible to comprehend how he made that carpet fly, but neither beams nor cables were visible to the audience for keeping that traveling rug up in the air. The effect is not even shrouded in darkness. The rug floats in front of a large, bright moon where even a keen observer must admit that only the supernatural could invoke that contraption to defy gravity. The show needs more spectacle like that.

A polished return to the old-fashioned musicals of the 1950s and ’60s, Aladdin will delight children and keep adults tapping their toes. Though the creators were unable to vanquish the ghosts of the movie, the cast drags the audience into this fantastical world.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
January 13, 2018
Barefoot in the Park
Glendale Centre Theatre

Often considered one of Broadway’s “Golden Boys” of the 1960s and ’70s, Neil Simon created a prodigious catalogue that spans far more than merely those two decades. This particular chestnut of his, premiering in 1963 with a film version following in 1967, is given a loving revisit here under the sure-handed guidance of director George Stratton.
   Newlyweds Paul and Corie Bratter, fresh off what seems a whirlwind romance and a six-day honeymoon holed up in one of Manhattan’s ritziest hotels, are now facing the realities of daily married life. Corie, played with energetic verve by Stephanie Skewes, has located the Bratters’ first permanent residence. That it is a relatively tiny fifth-floor walk-up, six if you count the front stoop, devoid of a bathtub or enough bedroom space to accommodate anything larger than a single-sized mattress, is a constant source of comic commentary throughout Simon’s piece.
   Corie’s counterpart Paul, played by Skewes’s real-life husband, Joshua Evans, is an anxiously conventional young lawyer who has recently secured his first post-graduate job. It quickly becomes evident that this is a somewhat mismatched union as Corie’s joie de vivre begins to clash with Paul’s realism. Skewes and Evans, by nature of their offstage relationship, bring a smart believability to their onstage alter egos. Stratton capitalizes on this fortuitous blessing throughout the couple’s scene work, especially during a rather feisty argument sequence in Act 2.

Supporting roles in Simon’s tale range from the anachronistically absurd to hilarious cameos. Ted Wells pulls out all the stops as the Bratters’ rooftop-dwelling neighbor, Victor Velasco, a Bohemian artiste-cum-playboy with a heart of gold. Almost instantly, Velasco clues in on Corie’s need for adventure, which leads to hilarious shenanigans, particularly when he woos her unmarried mother who stops by to visit the young couple’s new digs.
   As Corie’s mother, Caron Strong provides a funny albeit occasionally inconsistent performance. Strong’s delivery, heavily reminiscent of the recently passed Ann Wedgeworth, is difficult to understand at times in this approximately 400-seat venue. The result is that Strong’s character comes off as slightly tipsy when she’s not and almost pedantically slow when she is under the influence after a night out with Victor and the kids. Not hers alone, pacing issues hamper a few instances that should otherwise highlight Simon’s patter-like repartee.
   Rounding out the company are Rick Steele and Mark Gates as separate visitors to the Bratters’ new abode. Steele portrays a deliveryman whose single entrance, gasping and wheezing from the Everest-like ascent to drop off some belated wedding gifts from Corie’s mother, is cutely amusing. Gates’s performance as Harry Pepper, a telephone company installer/repairman, is one of the show’s highlights. Proving that the most can be made of a secondary character, Gates steals both of his scenes with a relaxed delivery that honors the dry wit for which Simon’s works are known.

Production values are certainly up to snuff in this arena-styled theatre. The multileveled set, credited to Stratton and Nathan Milisavljevich, offers a surprisingly welcome set of playing spaces. Paul Reid’s lighting covers all the bases, and Angela Manke’s costuming captures the period with charm.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 28, 2018

I Am My Own Wife
Laguna Playhouse

Doug Wright’s intriguing biographical play about German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf stars John Tufts, who morphs seamlessly into 30-plus characters as he narrates the tale set in wartime Berlin in the 1940s. Described as a “one-woman show performed by a man,” it is provocative and delivers a nuanced portrayal of a complex character with mystery surrounding the reality of her story.
Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, von Mahlsdorf was attracted to female clothing even as a child, and through the evolution of his sexuality he transforms into Charlotte over the years. Passionate about antiques, she sets about rescuing furniture and artifacts from the Nazis by creating the Gründerzeit Museum, a place that also served for a time as a safe haven for gays. Being gay in Hitler’s Germany was dangerous, but we learn she survived though a set of circumstances we are asked to examine as the story unfolds.

Tufts is a chameleon dressed in a simple black dress, a bandana, and sensible vintage oxfords. With no change of costume, he slides seamlessly from Mahlsdorf to Wright to soldiers and citizens whose lives connected with Charlotte over the years. Tufts’s Charlotte is shy, coquettish, and poignant. Is she a hero saving priceless artifacts from the Nazis by creating the museum, or is she a traitor who sells out even a fellow antiques collector when the Nazis come calling?
Wright’s conflicted feelings about Charlotte evolve throughout his interviews with her; and, as the inconsistencies grow, he is faced with deciding what to believe. Wright incorporates a fascinating array of people into his characterizations, effectively providing context for the storyline.
Keith Mitchell’s set design is cleverly omnipresent as a museum facade with multiple hanging relics suspended over the stage. Pablo Santiago’s lighting design helps create the stark landscape of Charlotte’s gray world. Sound design by Christopher Moscatiello also brings wartime Berlin to life.

Director Jenny Sullivan relies on Tufts’s unique transformations to create the drama, choosing subtlety over histrionics. That choice makes the story more evocative and memorable. Watching a master actor at work makes waiting two years for Tufts’s schedule to allow for the production to come to Laguna pay off for artistic directors Ellen Richard and Ann E. Wareham. It is a quiet but very satisfying character study worth seeing.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann January 24, 2018
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