Dah Dah Dah Dum (Snap Snap)

Addams Family (Simi ARTS)userpic=theatre_musicalsTheatre is an interesting beast. You can take a single show, and present it in various size productions and interpretations. For example, you can take a musical and see it in a 4000 seat auditorium where you can barely see the actors, and remount it in a 300 seat theatre with different nuances, and then remount it in a 99 seat black box. Each venue requires the creative team to adapt to different actors, different capacities in terms of wings and scenery fly space, and drastically different budgets. These differences can totally change a show: I recall seeing an intimate theatre version of Gypsy that was just astounding, and that provided insight into different nuances of the story and the character. There are also different qualities of the actors, from AEA-trained touring actors, to non-AEA SAG/AFTRA actors (i.e., TV or movie), to community players, to students. Sometimes the AEA actors can be so-so, and the community actors can surprise you. Lastly (and this is important) a show that gets lukewarm — or even negative — reception on Broadway and in New York can be a hit out in the rest of the country, and have a long long life (and continue to make money for its authors).

We saw a show to which all of the above applies. The Addams Family: The Musical didn’t do spectacular on Broadway. It’s story was reworked to solve a number of problems, and the reworked show went out on tour. This is when we saw it, back in 2012, at the Pantages Theatre. A very large auditorium.  We enjoyed it quite a bit. When we learned that Actors Rep Theatre of Simi (Simi ARTS) (FB) was doing a production of Addams Family, we were intrigued. Simi ARTS is an interesting company: it is a community theatre, but often gets actors that have worked in TV, film, and in other smaller professional theatres. We have seen spectacular shows there; we’ve seen some that were a bit more clunky. But they all have their heart in the right place.

I’m pleased to say that this production of Addams Family is one of the best productions I’ve seen out of Simi ARTS. The cast was almost uniformly strong, with some spectacular voices and performances. If you stop reading here, just remember that this is a production that is worth seeing. Go to their website and get tickets (or go to Goldstar, as we did).

Here’s a quick synopsis of the show, from my 2012 review: The musical version of The Addams Family was not based on the television or the movies, although given that they drew upon the same characters, there are some commonalities. The musical, with book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and music/lyrics by Andrew Lippa, was based on characters from the original Charles Addams cartoons: Gomez, Morticia, Fester, Wednesday, Pugsley, Lurch, and Grandma (these characters were named for the TV show; they were unnamed in the cartoons). Now Addams stories usually take one of two forms: normal family visits the Addams and is shocked by the family, or the Addams have to appear normal to another family. In the original Broadway production, this was roughly the form of the story: Normal family of Wednesday’s boyfriend comes to visit, so the family needs to behave normally. Meanwhile, Morticia thinks she is getting old, family is shocked by the Addams, and Wednesday is pulled in different directions by love. You can read the original synopsis on Wikipedia. On Broadway, this didn’t work. The show was popular, but eviscerated by critics. Before the Broadway tour, the creative team decided to rework and tweak the story (ok, they decided to fix the show). They did, and I’m pleased to say is it much stronger. This entailed cutting some songs, a squid, and adding some new ones, so if you saw the show on Broadway, you should see it again.

When the show opens, the ghoulish Addams family is visiting the graveyard for an annual gathering of all family members (living, dead, and undecided) to celebrate what it is to be an Addams. Uncle Fester stops the Ancestors’ return to their graves to enlist their help: he knows that Wednesday is in love, and he wants love to conquer all. She has invited the boy’s family for dinner, and Fester wants it to be a success. We then learn that Gomez has built his relationship with Morticia on a foundation of never keeping secrets… after which Wednesday comes  and asks Gomez to keep a secret: she is engaged to this boy (Lucas Beineke). She doesn’t want her mother to know, so he must not tell her. This sets up the rest of the show: what is the effect of keeping this secret. While torturing Pugsley on a rack, Wednesday admits that love is pulling her in a new direction. As the Beinekes arrive, Wednesday and Lucas instruct their families to act normal so they can all enjoy a simple dinner. But the moment Lurch ushers the Beinekes into the mansion, tensions begin to mount. Mal wants to tear down the old house, Alice begins to spout happy poems at random, Pugsley, Fester, and Grandma fail at acting normal, and Wednesday, after wearing black for eighteen years, appears in a bright yellow dress. Morticia, realizing something is happening, believes Gomez is hiding a secret from him. Meanwhile, Pugsley is worried that Wednesday’s lovelife means she won’t torture him anymore. He steals a potion from Grandma after she reveals it will bring out someone’s dark nature. Pugsley plans to slip it to Wednesday at dinner. At dinner, “The Game” is played, where each person at the table confesses something. Gomez tells a story about not opening secrets in a box, while Uncle Fester admits he’s in love with the moon. In a mix-up, Alice drinks Pugsley’s potion and in front of everyone declares her marriage to Mal a loveless mess as she reveals her misery and woe. As Mal, humiliated, attempts to leave with his family, Wednesday announces that she and Lucas are engaged. Chaos engulfs both families, and Uncle Fester, trying to be helpful, instructs the Ancestors to create a sudden, terrible storm, trapping everyone in the mansion for the night. This is where the first act ends; I’ll leave the second act to you (noting that, after all, this is a musical).

As I pointed out in 2012, the reworked story worked a lot better. The musical numbers were, for the most part, quite entertaining (the music is still stuck in my head this morning–a good sign). A few numbers were a little bit slow, but most did a great job of moving along the plot, illustrating characters, and explaining motivations. Again, this was improved by the rework. It does appear that a few jokes were tweaked for current events, and they worked well. Rewatching it in 2015, about the only number that really doesn’t work is Fester’s love song to the moon. It is an excuse for special effects, but the entire sequence about Fester and the moon does nothing for the plot.

As I stated above, the cast (with one exception) was outstanding. In the lead positions were George Chavez II/FB as Gomez Addams and Kayla Bailey (FB (Music), FB) as Morticia Addams.  We’ve known George Chavez (and thus, he gets a first name reference 🙂 ) for years from his work at REP, and we have seen him grow in performance skills over the years. In many ways this is a perfect role for him, both for the humor, the attitude, and the way it exploits his singing and dancing skills. I thought he was great; my wife’s only comment was that his performance went down a notch when he was seemingly channeling Raul Julia — he was at his best when he was just being George and playing to George’s talents.  He was just great in all of his numbers. As for Bailey, she was a surprise. Just watch her face and listen to her voice on “Just Around The Corner” and you’ll be sold. I’ll note she was head and shoulders above the actress performing this role on the Broadway Tour, who had an odd vocal affectation.

The Addams children were portrayed by Natalia Vivino (FB) as Wednesday Addams and Bryce Phillips as Pugsley Addams. Vivino was a complete surprise, with a powerhouse voice and great performance skills. She just blew us away from her first notes in “Pulled”. Phillips was perhaps the one weak note: his acting skills were just fine, but the power of his voice just could not compete with the rest of the cast, turning what is likely a great voice in other situations to an also ran. Luckily, this is not a major problem in the show. [Edited to add: A comment from the actor clarified this may have been more an aspect of the direction of the song.]

Rounding out the Addams clan — at least the live ones — were Andrew Metzger (FB) as Uncle Fester, Carla Lombardo Bambo (FB) as Grandma, and Kevin Ellis/FB as Lurch.  Metzger was spectacular as Fester. Wild and crazy and playful and fun, completely unexpected and just great. He had a wonderful singing voice which he showed off in the one number I wasn’t crazy about (it was more how it slowed the show, not his performance, which was great).  Bambo has a much smaller role as Grandma, but her playfulness comes out in her “What If” number with Pugsley. As for Lurch, well, he doesn’t have that much to say or do until the end. When he does his thing,  it is unexpected and demonstrates a voice and a talent that is completely… wow.

The Beineke Family is portrayed by Colin Robert/FB as Lucas, and Lori Lee Gordon (FB) and Randle Rankin (FB) as Lucas’ parents, Alice and Mal.  Robert was a surprise, with some lovely performances with Vivino’s Wednesday. Gordon was a complete surprise, with a powerhouse voice and great stage presence, which came out in “Waiting” and “Crazier Than You”. She played well off of Rankin’s Mal.

Rounding out the players on stage were the ancestors: Constance Addams (FB) (Courtesan Ancestor); Oliver Skye Earley Anderson (Newsie Ancestor); Sage Ceilidh Earley Anderson (Child Star Ancestor, Cousin Itt); Augusto Guardado/FB (Dance Captain, Ancestor); Alissa Horner/FB (Ancestor); Caeli Molina (FB) (Saloon Girl Ancestor); Kelsey Nisbett (FB) (Ancestor); Ryan Schultze/FB (Soldier Ancestor); Emilie Schwarz (Sacagawea Ancestor); and Alexandra Vann (FB) (Ancestor Bride). This was an ensemble that was having fun: you can tell they were into their roles, they were having fun watching and being with the other actors on the stage, they were enjoying their songs. I love it when an ensemble has fun: this fun becomes contageous and just amplifies the audience. It is hard to single out particular ancestors for comments, but I liked the look of Horner, and I remember some good interplay and emotions from Molina and Vann.

The production was directed by David Daniels (FB), with choreography by Becky Castells (FB). The direction worked well to bring out the characters, and was particularly noticable in the ensemble, and the dampening of the emotion that would normally show (except if you are an Addams). The choreography worked reasonably well: one aspect of community theatre is that you have a much larger mix of dancing skills, and so some of the fancier stuff you might see with Broadway dancers you don’t see. This is not to say anything was bad — the dancing was quite enjoyable and did a great job of using the skills, talent, and space well.

The music was provided by a large orchestra under the music direction of Matt Park (FB), who was also on keyboards. Other orchestra members were: Richard Nevarez [Keyboard II]; Monica Minden (FB), Judy Garf (FB) [Violin]; Chris McCarty, Nancy Perillo/FB [Cello]; Mike Munson, Ron Munn [Reed I]; Paul Knaack, Janet Stuhr [Reed II]; Mel Bator, Rob Sack [Trumpet]; Keith Murphy, Brennan Park [Guitar]; Kevin Hart/FB [Bass]; Julene Jessel [Percussion]; Matt Jamele/FB [Drums]; Dave Uebersax/FB, Mark Baskin, Michael Vaughn, Larry Friedrich [Trombone].

Turning to the production and technical side. The set design was by David Daniels (FB) and Chris Slack/FB, and it worked reasonably well given the space constraints they are forced to live with. It was supplemented by projections (uncredited) and a wide variety of clever props (specialty prop design by Richard Hernandez/FB and Brenda Miller/FB; Miller and Jan Glasband (FB) are credited for the props themselves). The costumes, designed by Ken Patton (FB) and Genevieve Levin (FB) worked well for the characters, but basic black goes with everything. Morticia’s dress was spectacular. Sound design was by Seth Kamenow (FB), and I only have one complaint — and it is something you’ll rarely hear me say: the performers were a tad over-amplified for the space. Other than that, the sound was clear and the special effects were good. The lighting design by Julien Reux (FB) didn’t stand out, which was a good thing. Other significant production credits are: Megan Tisler (FB) [Stage Manager]; Brenda Goldstein/FB [Rehearsal Stage Manager]; Jan Glasband (FB) [Producer].

The Addams Family continues at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center (FB) through December 6. It is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through Actors Rep Theatre of Simi (Simi ARTS) (FB); discount tickets are available on Goldstar. You should also be aware of another concurrent activity of Actors Rep of Simi: the Nottingham Festival (FB), which brings a traditional Renaissance Faire back to Ventura County (where it all started). Nottingham runs two weekends: November 7-8 and November 14-15.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Next weekend sees us back in Simi for the Nottingham Festival (FB) on November 7. We then go out to Perris for “A Day Out with Thomas” at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) on November 11 (I can’t skip seeing my buddy Thomas and his friend Percy). The following week brings Deathtrap at REP East (FB) on November 14. The weekend before Thanksgiving I’m on my own. I picked up a postcard for “Timeshare”  at Eclectic Theatre Company (FB) while at the Colony for Best of Enemies, and it sounded so interesting I booked a ticket for November 21. The last weekend of November is currently open and will likely remain that way. December starts with High School Musical at Nobel Middle School (FB) (running December 1-4), followed by “El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on December 5. During the week I become a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). The weekend after the conference is open. The third weekend of December brings the touring company of “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). The last weekend of December is held for “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.



There’s Something Dirty and Rotten in Simi Valley

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (ARTS)userpic=theatre_musicalsThere are a number of shows where I purchase the cast album, and am lukewarm towards the show until I actually see it and can put the songs in context. There are other shows where I fall in love with the music the first time I hear it, and I’m eager to see a production.  One show in this latter category is “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”. I bought the cast album back in October of 2005 and fell in love with the music and the extremely clever lyrics (I always thought a particular song in the first act was an allegory for a previous occupant of the White House). Alas, I was unable to see the show when the tour hit the Pantages or when it visited Orange County. I finally caught the show in 2010 when it was performed at the NoHo Arts Center by Interact Theatre Company. That show was good but had some problems. When I learned it was being done by Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi Valley (FB) at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center (FB), I put it on my calendar to get tickets. We saw the show last night. It was a very good production — a few technical problems, but the performances were excellent and it was a delight to watch.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is based on the 1988 movie with Steve Martin and Michael Caine (written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, and Paul Henning). Adapted for the stage by Jeffrey Lane, and with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, the story centers on two competing con men living on the French Riviera. At first, the suave and experienced Lawrence Jameson takes the rookie con man, Freddy, under his wing. But soon, Freddy tries to compete directly with Lawrence. The competition comes to a peak when they agree that the first con man to extract $50,000 from the female heiress, Christine Colgate, wins and the other must leave town forever. Going into further details might spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll note there is a more detailed synopsis on Wikipedia.

The original Broadway production had stellar performances by John Lithgow, Norbert Leo Butz, and Sheri Rene Scott in a full size house with massive scene changes. Smaller theatres have to get more creative with their spaces to pull this off; further, given their funding limitations, their casting presents more of a challenge. Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi Valley (FB) (henceforth, ARTS) has a few more challenges in this area, as they are an all volunteer organization that uses a mix of seasoned actors from the community and local amateurs. I’m pleased to say that ARTS’ casting worked: the combination of stellar leads, a strong ensemble, and good direction from Sean P. Harrington (FB). The strength of the performance overcame the few technical and musical glitches to provide a very strong show that was fun to watch. As I commonly say, I can never tell where the contributions of the director from the contributions of the actor, and so I tend to credit the actor believing the best directoral hand is an invisible one.  So to the extent my good words below belong to the director, consider them allocated.

One of the primary reasons for the success of this production are the leads: Kristopher Kyer (FB) as Lawrence Jamison, Stephen Weston (FB) as Freddy Benson, and Christanna Rowader (blog) (FB) as Christine Colgate. I know Kyer from the Forgotten Musicals group on FB, and we’ve seen him before as the lead in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at ARTS. He was spectacular as Jamison, pulling him off as suave with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. The strong performance combined with strong vocal and movement worked very well. You can tell he was having fun with this role — and I’ve noted before that when the actors are having fun, the audience feeds off of that. Unlike the performance at NoHo Arts, his Jamison did not hold back — you could see pieces of the stick flying when he was whipping the legs of Freddy during “Rüffhausen’ Mit Shüffhausen” . The maniacal energy was great. Also exhibiting maniacal energy was Weston as Benson. This young man (who we haven’t seen before) was spectacular at physical comedy, including some that appeared to be seemingly improvised. This was demonstrated strongly in the “All About Reprecht” number, as well as many others. Again, this comedy talent was combined with strong singing and talent for a great performance that amplified that of the other leads. In the last lead position was Rowader, who we’ve seen before at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) and is yet another performer with strong singing and performance abilities. I felt that she could have amped up the physical comedy a pinch more in her introductory number (“Here I Am”) and her bedroom scene with Buzz; the physical clumisness of the schlmiel that is Christine needs to appear more painful for the poor schlemazel. But in the scheme of things (hmmm, and this is a musical about the scheme of things) that’s minor — Rowader is playful and works well with both Kyer and Weston, so much so that you can see them as a realistic team. This is the heart of the show, and this is what makes it work.   [Note: For some reason, Kyer is listed as Kristopher Antekeier in the first cast list in the program.]

In the second tier we have Elizabeth Stockton (FB) as Muriel (of Omaha) and Kevin Ellis/FB (filling in for Jeff Wallach (FB)) as Andre Thibault. Stockton’s Muriel was a very strong singer and performer (although she needs to fix the timing on “I’m Muriel, of Omaha”, although the audience that remembers Marlin Perkins is probably small now), and she seemed to really enjoy the witty lines the scripts give her. We’ve seen Ellis before — most notably, his excellent performance in CSUN’s Hair back in 2006, and he continues to be a strong performer. The combination of strong singing, good timing, and comic expressions from these two just made them fun to watch. Also fun to watch was Sharon Gibson/FB‘s Jolene Oakes. Her singing could have been a little stronger in the “Oklahoma” number, but her comic reactions during “All About Ruprecht” were great.

Rounding out the cast in smaller roles and ensemble positions were: Jamie Whittington Studer (FB) (Lenore), Cynthia Caldwell/FB (Sophia / Ensemble), Tabitha Ellis (FB) (Renée / Ensemble), Julio Arroyo (FB) (Ensemble), David Bañuelos/FB (Ensemble), Chris Carnicelli (FB) (Train Conductor / Tourist / Nikos / Ensemble), Tori Cusack (FB) (Ensemble / Dance Captain), Morgan Difonzo/FB (Ensemble), Kyle Harrington/FB (Ensemble), Ryan Huebner/FB (Ensemble), Allison Lobel (FB) (Ensemble), Andy Mattick (FB) (Ensemble), and Julie Snyder (FB) (Ensemble).

The choreography was by Becky Castells (FB), and it worked reasonably well given the performer mix. What was most important about the choreography was that the performers  appeared to be having fun executing it, as opposed to focusing on getting their feet in the right places. This permitted them to enjoy the show, and pass the enjoyment to the audience. This is a good thing — I’ve seen some shows where you can see the dancers counting, and it isn’t fun.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” featured an onstage orchestra under the Musical Direction of Matthew Park. This volunteer orchestra was sizable (Cello, Reed I + II + III, Trumpet I + II, Horn, Trombone, Violin, Guitar, Bass, Synthesizer I + II, Percussion, and Drums — sometimes with multiple people for a given position) and was, for the most part, good. I say “for the most part”, because one horn (likely one of the Trumpet Is) was both too loud and out of tune, which distorted the sound of the whole. Other than that, the orchestra performed well and my only quibble was the portion of the back wall and lift controls behind the percussionist in the middle.

Turning to the technical side of things: The set was relatively simple (even simpler than the NoHo Arts set), with a stairwell/podium in the center and a number of props that moved on and off stage. This design, by the director Sean P. Harrington (FB) worked reasonably well (although it could have used a touch more elegance). No credit was provided in the program for the sound design, but the sound was clear and reasonable crisp. Lighting was by Alex Choate (FB) and was reasonable good, although at times the follow spot was a bit glaring and should have been blended better. The costumes were designed by Cynthia Caldwell/FB and were (for the most part) good. Some of the ensemble’s gowns could be fitted better, and my wife felt that Muriel’s costume in the second act needed some correction in the pants (whereas I noticed the odd bare midriff). Again, minor problems. Rounding out the production team were Megan Tisler (FB) (Production Stage Manager), Lacey Stewart/FB (Tech Director), Brenda Miller/FB (Prop Mistress), Jamie Whittington Studer (FB) (Asst. Prop Mistress), DeeAnna Caldwell/FB (Asst. Costumer), Hedy Lu Bares/FB (Asst. Costumer), Chris Slack (Set Construction), Corey Slack (Set Construction), Lynn Hubbard (Set Construction), and Jan Glasband (FB) (Flyer and Program). “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” was produced by Jan Glasband (FB).

The Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi Valley (FB) production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundels” continues at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center (FB) through December 1, is and well worth seeing if you are looking for a good production of DRS at an affordable price. Tickets are available through ARTS, and discount tickets should be available through Goldstar. ARTS is also behind the upcoming Nottingham Village (FB) on November 16/17, which returns the Renaissance Festival to where it all began — eastern Ventura County! Upcoming ARTS productions at the SVCAC include “Shrek: The Musical” (March 30-April 6, 2014) — a birdie told me George Chavez/FB who we know from REP might be in this; “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (June 7-July 13, 2014), and “Godspell” (July 26-August 31, 2014). Other upcoming productions at SVCAC (non-ARTS) include “Plaid Tidings” (December 7-22, 2013) and “bare – A Rock Opera” (January 11-February 15, 2014).

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Next week is a rare theatre-free weekend, for we are visiting our buddy Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The following week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale), as well as seeing the Trollplayers (FB) production of Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden” (which runs November 8-17) [Trollplayers is the community theatre group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge]. That weekend will also bring a release party for a Kickstarted-CD by Big Daddy. The weekend before Thanksgiving is also very busy with three shows: Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) on Friday; “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend is currently open, as is much of December (December is due to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans, which has me out of two the first two weekends in December… but has me wondering about New Orleans theatre), but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. Looking into January…. nothing is currently scheduled, but it will likely bring “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“, which is the first show of the REP East (FB) season, running 1/17 through 2/15/2014… and the end of the month will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Of course, we look forward to seeing you at ACSAC for the wonderful training opportunities there. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.



A Fantasmagorical Production

Sometimes, you go to the theatre to be intellectually challenged. Sometimes you go to see a familiar story. Sometimes, you simply go to be entertained with engaging music and a light story. I’m pleased to say that the Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi‘s production of the musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“, which opened tonight at the Simi Cultural Arts Center, is thoroughly entertaining. In fact, you might even say it is fantasmagorical.

Let me step back a bit. It has been years since we had gone to the Simi Cultural Arts Center. Our last visit was back in 2007 for Edwin Drood, and before that for Thoroughly Modern Millie the same year. Both productions were good for community theatre, but didn’t create the strong desire to be regulars there. However, when I saw that the stage version of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was going to be local, I decided it was time to give them another try. This is one of only two productions of the show in the US this year; the stage version hasn’t been at a major venue in Los Angeles that I can recall. I am very glad I gave them the try: Actors Rep of Simi has improved tremendously, and did an excellent job with this production, especially considering the limitations that their facility creates for them. So before I jump into the review proper, let me summarize: this production is worth seeing.

I should note, however, that you don’t go to see CCBB for the plot. The original story by Ian Fleming was Fleming’s only children’s story inbetween everthing that was James Bond. MGM was able to steal away the Sherman Brothers from Disney when the book was adapted for the screen, which created a memorable score in 1964. More recently, the story was adapted for the stage by Jeremy Sams and Ray Roderick, but the story is essentially the film story… and that story is very slight. Crackpot inventor Caractacus Potts is convinced by his two children, Jeremy and Jemima, to rescue a former racing car from the junkyard. This car is the target of spies from Vulgaria, who want it to restore national pride in the Grand Prix. To try to raise money, Potts attempts to sell a candy invention to the Scrumptious Family, based on his meeting Truly Scrumptious. That doesn’t work, but he eventually buys the car. Meanwhile, the spies steal Pott’s father, thinking he’s the inventor and take him to Vulgaria, where children are forbidden. The family goes to rescue him, the car floats, the car flies. and hijinx ensue. You can get more details in the film synopsis, but there are some slight differences.

As I said, you don’t go to this show for the plot. The plot is silly—it’s a children’s story. Some of the songs are clearly filler, but they are just so fun. The music is infectious, joyful, and sticks in your head (what would you expect from the team that wrote small world). [I should note that Richard Sherman was actually in the audience tonight, and I did go up and thank him for his music].

The acting in this show is spot on: the actors are clearly having fun doing the show, and they are performing well and know all their lines down pat (something I don’t always see even in professional productions). In the lead posiution is Kristopher Kyer (the only equity actor) as Caractacus Potts. This man channels Dick Van Dyke in acting, singing, and comic timing. He is just a joy to watch, and a delight in the role. My only quibble is minor: his kids have British accents; his father has a British accent, but Caractacus—an American accent. But that is truly minor. Speaking of Truly, she is played by newcomer Heather Barnett. Barnett has a lovely voice, and plays and moves well against Kyer’s Potts. Supporting these two were Carter Thomas as Jeremy Potts and Natalie Esposito as Jemima Potts (these two alternate with Stanley Miller and Rachel Albrecht, who we did not see). Thomas and Esposito both gave strong performances: singing, dancing, movement, and acting were all great. All four of these leads were just joys to watch.

In the secondary tier, we had David Gilchrist as Grandpa Potts. We’ve seen Gilchrist before at CMT, where he was strong, and he continued that tradition here giving a playful character to the role. On the more comic-evil side, we had Danielle Judovits as the Baronness and John McCool Bowers as the Baron, who both played the roles for their comic potential. Also notable for their comic roles were the two spies, John Dantona as Boris and John David Wallis as Goran, who again played the comedy to a hilt. Not strictly a comic role, but a role that was suitably played for laughs as well, was George Chavez, who we know from REP East, as the Childcatcher.

Rounding out the cast were: Bart Sumner (Toymaker), Genevieve Levin (Violet, Adult Ensemble), Larry Shilkoff (Chef/Turkey Farmer), Chris Carnicelli (Coggins/Sid), Adam Friedman (Ensemble), Alesandra Shultz (Dance Ensemble), Ava Miele (Ensemble), Melissa Miller (Ensemble), Amanda Drewes (Ensemble), Olivia Miele (Ensemble), Anthony Valdez (Ensemble), Kimberly Kiley (Dance Emsemble), Emerson Oliver (Ensemble), Isabella Phillips (Ensemble), Rebecca Thomas (Dance Ensemble), Sara Gilbert (Ensemble), Gabriella Friedman (Ensemble), Haley Gilchrist (Ensemble), Madeline Gambon (Ensemble), Zach Kaufer (Ensemble). Mimi Mize (Ensemble), and Kassie Bales (Ensemble).

The production was directed by David Daniels, who did an excellent job of both bringing out the characters from this regional theatre team (i.e., he brought out great performances), as well as using the limited basic auditorium setup at the Simi Valley CAC to its best advantage. Aiding him was Rebecca Castells, who did the Choreography. The dancing in this was excellent—in particular, I would like to highlight the numbers “Me Ol’ Bamboo” and “The Bombie Samba”, which were very well moved.

Musically, the performance was under the musical direction of Matthew Park, who led the large volunteer orchestra located in the front of the stage: Cary Ginnell (Reed I), Ron Munn (Reed I), Dylan Regalado (Reed II), Bernard Selling (Reed III), Janet Stuhr (Reed III), Mike Munson (Reed III), Rob Sack (Trumpet I), Mel Batorr (Trumpet I), John Hansen (Trumpet II), Richard Nevarez (Trumpet II), Travis Thomas (Trombone), Clary McCarter (Trombone), Jerrry Lasnikm (Horn), Susan Freece (Horn), Lance Merrill (Piano), Matthew Park (Piano), Kevin Hart (Bass), Jodie Morse (Percussion), and Lucas Mille (Drums). I particuarly want to highlight Jodie Miller, who was fascinating to watch with all her percusion: her face was just so interesting.

Technically, this team didn’t have a lot to work with. Simi CAC doesn’t have a lot of fly space, there are limited lights (a few leicos, two movers). But they made it work, including a pretty good GEN11 Chitty Chitty car. Credit goes first and foremost to Sean P. Harrington, the production designer. Also deserving of credit was Lori Lee Gordon, the costume designer, Lacey Stewart, the lighting designer, Evan Acosta, who did the CG Animation Projections, Will Shupe, the technical director, and the uncredited sound designer. There wasn’t a single microphone glitch in this entire performance. Great job!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” runs through December 23, 2011 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, with additional performances on 12/10 and 12/17 at 2pm and 12/22 at 7:30pm. It is worth seeing. Tickets are available through Simi Arts; they are also available on Goldstar. ETA: Actors Rep Theatre of Simi has also announced their 2012 season: Avenue Q (Feb 26-April 1, 2012); To Kill a Mockingbird (June 2-July 8, 2012); The Music Man (July 21-August 26, 2012; and Spring Awakening (Oct 27-Dec 2, 2012). Of these, we’re interested in To Kill a Mockingbird if we have time, as we’ve seen the other musicals. I am curious how they will do Spring Awakening“, given that Simi Valley is a relatively conservatve town. I’ll also note that SVCA (Simi Valley Cultural Arts) will be presenting Hairspray from Jan 7-Feb 12, 2012.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Thanksgiving weekend brings two productions: “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson on Friday and the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. The first weekend of December brings “Lost and Unsung“, a celebration of music cut from musicals, at LA City College. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The end of December should bring Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (Hottix on sale 11/22). The remainder of December is unscheduled, but there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.


Whodunnit? I dunno. Let’s vote on it.

Last night, we went to the final performance of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. I was very glad that we only had to go to Simi Valley and not the REP, because we were able to avoid the mess that is the I-5/Route 14 junction. Anyway, on to the show.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is a musical based on the unfinished novel by Messr. C. Dickens, with book, music, and lyrics by Messr. Rupert Holmes. The story concerns a young man, Edwin Drood, who is about to marry a beautiful young lady, Rosa Bud. Unfortunately for Edwin, his uncle is Rosa’s music teacher and is also in love with Rosa. His uncle also suffers from a medical condition (I think migraines) that has him visiting the opium dens in London (run by Princess Puffer). Added to the mix is are the brother and sisters Neville and Helena Landless from Ceylon: Neville and Edwin have a distinct dislike for one another, as Edwin is English and Neville is British. There is also the comic relief subplot about Durdles and Deputy digging a crypt for the Lord Mayor, and a seemingly lecherous Reverend Mr. Chrisparkle. One night, after a dinner at Jaspers, Edwin disappears. The group starts to investigate the murder when… led by Princess Puffer and a mysterious stranger, Dick Dachery. However, shortly after that point, Dickens died and the story was finished.

Here is where the conceit of the play comes it. The play is told in the setting of an English Musical Hall (in fact, the original opening number (captured on a Lost in Boston album) was “An English Music Hall”), and so the actors are playing actors in the Music Hall Royale production of December 29, 1892, who are playing the actors in the story. This leads to an intentional “melodrama” style of performance, where actors are introduced as the Music Hall actor in their first scenes, and the play is presided over by a Chairman who relates the story and sets each scene. It also leads to the main conceit: audience participation.

Yes, audience participation. When the play abruptly stops, there are four open questions:

  • Is Edwin Drood dead or just missing?
  • Who is Dick Dachery?
  • Who murdered Edwin Drood?
  • Who eventually falls in love with each other?

The first question is always answered by the company, who vote Edwin dead. The rest are voted on by the audience, and the actors in the music hall then end the story based on the vote. In the production we saw last night, a minor character (Bazzard) was voted to be Dachery, the murderer was Neville Landless, and the couple was Princess Puffer and the Reverend.

So how did the company do? Acting-wise, quite well for what they are. The Actors Rep of Simi Valley rarely uses equity actors, and is more on the level of local community theatre (vs. Rep East, where there are regular equity actors). The actors were all reasonably competent, and some were quite good. We were all very impressed with Elisabeth Stockton as Princess Puffer/Miss Angela Prysock and Anna Graves as Edwin Drood/Miss Alice Nutting. Both sang and acted quite well. Comically, John Sarkela did an excellent job as The Reverend Mr. Chrisparkle/Mr. Cedric Moncrieffe, with Nick Furguson and Corey Slack as the bumbling Durdles/Mr. Nick Cricker and Deputy/Master Dick Cricker, respectively. Jodi Wurts had the appropriate melodramatic chops as Neville Landless/Mr. VIctor Grinstead, playing up the role to the hilt. Kristina Reyes as Rosa Bud/Miss Deirdre Peregrine was beautiful, but at times came off as stiff. I was less impressed with Ryan Neely as John Jasper/Mr. Clive Paget–his performance just seemed a bit off for me, but I can’t put my finger on why. Amanda Lastort as Helena Landless/Miss Janet Conover was competant, but seemed to be overacting a bit which was distracting. The very rotund Fred Helsel as Mr. William Cartwright/Lord Mayor/Chairman occasionally tripped over his tongue but recovered well. Rounding out the cast were Seth Kamerow as Bazzard/Mr. Philip Bax and Sarah Goodwin, Erica Hess, Megan Tisler, and Heather Neely as The Sparkling Ingenues. I should note that the cast did an excellent job of remaining in character when they mingled with the audience during the pre-show and intermission.

My main complaint with the production was technical. The musicians were over-amplified, making it difficult to hear the words the actors were singing (better enunciation would have helped as well). The costumes were occasionally off-period, and more ill-fitting (especially on the larger busted ladies, who looked to be nearly falling out of their tops). So who did what technically? The production was directed by Fred Helsel, produced by Fred Helsel and Linda Gray. Musical direction was by Gary Poirot, with vocal direction by Bonnie Graeve and choreography by Alexandra R. Lastort. The effective lighting design was by Christian West, costumbe by Randon Pool, and scenery by Fred Helsel.

Tonight is the last night of the production.

Dining Notes: Dinner last night was at Reds BBQ in Simi. Quite tasty. Highly recommended.

Speaking of upcoming shows, here’s how our calendar is looking: We have a break before our next show, which is “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 11/3 @ 2:00pm. The rest of November is taken up by other activities: 30th High School Reunion, Thomas at OERM, and isn’t programmed. Theatre starts up again in December, with “Ray Charles Live” at the Pasadena Playhouse on 12/1 @ 8pm; Tom Paxton at McCabes on 12/2 @ 7:30pm; and the highly anticipated “The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales” at Nobel Middle School on 12/6 @ 7pm, 12/7 @ 7pm, and maybe 12/8 @ 5pm.


Millie, Take 2

This afternoon, we trundled out to Simi Valley to see Thoroughly Modern Millie (myspace) again. I say “again”, because we last saw TMM at the Ahmanson Theatre in June 1994 2004. Back then, I thoroughly enjoyed the singing and dancing, but noted the plot problems the show had. However, we didn’t bring nsshere to the show with us… and since then, she’s grown enamored of the music. So, when I saw a production at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, it was off to Goldstar to get tickets.

For those not familiar with the show, the stage version of Millie is a remake of the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. A few songs were kept from the movie, and some original songs by Dick Scanlan and (lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) were added. The musical maintains the basic story line of the movie but, in an effort to be politically correct, tones down many of the stereotypical traits associated with the Asian characters in the film. The plot revolves around Millie Dillmount, who escapes to New York City from Salina, Kansas determined to marry her wealthy boss – whomever he may be. Shedding her country girl image for the modern look of a “flapper,” she takes a room at the Priscilla Hotel for Women and gets a job as a stenographer at the Sincere Trust Insurance Company. In short time, she finds herself involved with Jimmy Smith, an apparently ne’er-do-well paper clip salesman, Miss Dorothy Brown, a genteel aspiring actress who never seems to have spare change, Trevor Graydon, her no-nonsense boss, and Muzzy van Hossmere, a madcap Manhattan heiress with a zest for the high life. The Priscilla Hotel proves to be a front for a white slavery ring, headed by Mrs. Meers, the property’s proprietor, and her two bumbling Asian henchmen. Her ideal target is an attractive orphaned girl with no family who won’t be missed if she suddenly disappears. Millie, who gets mail from home on a regular basis, is hardly a likely candidate, but Miss Dorothy (as she insists she be called), who hasn’t a soul in the world, is perfect. Of course, there are various complications in the love story, but things all work out well in the end.

So, how did the Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi do? For a community theatre, not bad at all. Let’s go area by area.

For the most part, the casting was excellent. Particular kudos go to Anna Desiree Graves (Millie Dilmount) who did a fantabulous job. This lady is a triple threat: she sings well, she acts well, and she dances great… and her enthusiasm comes across. I think she’ll go far. Also worthy of note was Rosemary Blankson (Muzzy van Hossmere), who was another triple threat. I was also impressed with Ryan Neely (Trevor Graydon), who showed a remarkable comic side (and who reminded us of an older version of one of our favorites, Kevin Earley, who played the role at the Ahmanson on Broadway [thanks, shutterbug93]). Alas, the casting was a bit off for Jimmy Smith: although Cameron Fife was a remarkable actor and dancer, his voice wasn’t quite in the range needed for the songs… and as a result, a few notes were off. Other main players in the cast included Farley Cadena (Mrs. Meers), Chris Hsu (Ching Ho), Marla McClure (Miss Dorothy Brown), and Mel Wong (Bun Foo). The ensemble, playing various not-explicitly-named roles, included Jenna Davi, Rachel K. Evans, Jennifer Fenten, Michael Robin Garcia, Wendy Kenney, Matthew Lawrence, Ian Loveall, Austin Miller, Michelle Pariso, Tania Possick, Gillian Samhamel, Alison Siegel, Corey Slack, Jessica Stone, and Rodrigo Roman Suarez.

Moving to the technical side of things. This is a small theatre, and the 8-piece orchestra (under the musical direction of Gary Poirot) did an excellent job, with one exception: the trumpet player. He didn’t quite make all of his notes, and the ones he didn’t make were painful. I think this show really needs more than one horn, and a slightly larger musical section would have worked better. The set design by David Daniels was reasonable for the stage size, and I particularly liked the integration of the projector. Costume design was by Ben Kahookele and Shon Le Blanc, and was reasonable except for Mille’s outfit at the top of Act 2: the yellow T-shirt-ish top served to focus the attention on her (ummm) chest, and not her excellent singing and dancing. The costume needed to be more in the 1920’s slinky style. The production was produced and directed by Jan Glasband and David Daniels, with choreography by Seth Kamenow and Kristina Stieffel. Technical direction and lighting design was by Christian West, and the stage was managed by Kaelia Franklin.

Surprisingly, for all the credits in the playbill, the most important ones were left off. The book was by Richard Morris (from his original screenplay for the 1967 film of the same name), and most (but not all) music and lyrics were by Dick Scanlan (lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music). The production runs through April 1, 2007.

So, will we go back to the Simi Cultural Arts Center? Quite likely, depending on the show. For a community theatre, they did a reasonable job, and they seem have a good set of musicals in their repertoire. We’re not that interested that much in the remainder of the 2007 season, as we’ve seen The Wizard of Oz and Ragtime.

As for us, the theatre calendar for the next few weeks is getting quite busy indeed: “They’re Playing Our Song” at Valley Musical Theatre on Sat Mar 3rd @ 2pm; Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at CSUN on Sat, Mar 10th @ 8pm; “Songs for a New World” at the ELATE Lincoln Stegman Theatre on Sat Mar 17th @ 8pm; “The Beatles Slept Here” (a Moorpark Melodrama from the High Street Theatre Foundation) at the Secret Garden Restaurant (tickets) on Sun Mar 18th at 1:30pm; “The Last 5 Years” at REP East on Sun Mar 25th at 2pm; “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Sat Mar 31st at 2pm; and “Cuttin Up’” at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sat Apr 7th at 8pm. I’ll be looking on Goldstar for tickets for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” through Broadway/LA (tickets go on sale 3/18)… and through HotTix, tickets for “Jersey Boys” at the TaperAhmanson (tickets on sale 3/12). As I said… a busy, busy, theatre spring.