What Do You Feed Your Plants?

Last night, we went to the second performance of “Little Shop of Horrors”, presented by “Actors in Action” and the Performing Arts Magnet at Van Nuys High School. Going in I was familiar with the music from Little Shop, but had only seen the screen version of the musical and read the synopsis of the stage version. The translation of this being that I was not in a position to detect the minutae of missed cues: I was looking at the presentation wholistically.

For those unfamilar with the story, Little Shop is a retelling of the “classic” 1960 Roger Corwin film, with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and book by Howard Ashman. It tells the story of Seymour Krelborn, who works in Mushnik’s Flower Shop, a failing store on Skid Row. The shop is run by Mr. Mushnik, Seymour, and Audrey. Business is off, well, OK, there is no business, and Seymour suggest displaying his new exotic plant, which he has named Audrey II. Of course the strange plant draws customers and business is soon booming. In celebration Mushnik invites Seymour and Audrey out on the town, but Audrey has a date with her boyfriend, the sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello. Seymour also declines and stays behind to tend to the suddenly ailing Audrey II. That night, alone in the shop, he discovers the shocking secret to the plant’s health and phenomenal growth: human blood. Seymour encourages the plant’s growth by pricking his fingertips and feeding Audrey II his own blood. This only lasts for a few days, however, and the meager drops of blood aren’t enough for the quickly growing plant. Finally, late one night the plant grows bold and speaks: “feed me.” Eventually, after the nitrous-addicted dentist laughs himself to death, Seymour does. This permits Seymour to confess his love to Audrey. However, Mushnik witnessed Seymour’s crime and threatens to turn him… and so the plant gets fed again. But the ethics of the situation gets to him and he decides to flee. Before Seymour can complete his plan, however, the plant mortally wounds Audrey. Dying, she requests that she be fed to the plant, so she can become a part of it and always be near Seymour. As the music swells, Seymour feeds her to Audrey II, which at last reveals its ultimate plans–nothing less than world domination. Seymour makes one last attempt to kill the plant but fails. In the end, he too is devoured. The singers, joined now by the faces of the dead characters, warn that Audrey II and other alien plants have begun to devour the world one city at a time–starting with Cleveland… (note that the movie wimps out, and Seymour lives).

Van Nuys made one slight change in the story: they cast a woman as Mr. Mushnick, and changed the character to Mrs. Mushnick. Personally, I wish they had made one other change: in the song “Somewhere That’s Green”, they should have changed the word “Levittown” to something that kids today in the San Fernando Valley would understand. I’d suggest “Panorama City”, but it wouldn’t scan.

Anyway, on to the production. The leads in the program were extremely strong in their singing abilities. I really have to give strong kudos to Sean Scott, a 9th grader in his first VNHS show, and Ashlyn Kilham, a 10th grader in her second VNHS show for their songs. I thought their acting was also quite good, although not yet up to professional standard. Give them time–this is only high school. The Rhonettes were a mixed bag: the lead singer Stephanie Hoston (Rhonette) was wonderful, a senior who has performed at venues such as Citywalk and the House of Blues. Lisa Lee (Chiffon), another senior, sang alright, but kept being off on the choreography. Freshman Christina Soldano (Crystal) was a bit weaker on the singing and the choreography. It’s hard to judge this greek chorus on their acting — I’ll look closer when we see the show again next week. [ETA a week later: My original impression was right: the only strong one in the trio was Hoston. Both Lee and Soldano were weak in the choreography, and had trouble with the high notes in the singing.] Also in lead, but unseen roles, were Raymond Adrian as Audrey II’s puppeteer, and Jeffrey Colon as Audrey II’s voice. Both did good jobs.

In the mid-size roles, Senior Mikel Bossette (who is normally excellent) seemed a bit off as Mrs. Mushnick, but I think that was more due to the incongruence of her in the role, microphone problems, and an odd costume. She just doesn’t come off as an older New York Jewish lady. She only gets one song (which is a pity as she is a good singer), and the combination of how she had to adjust her voice as Mushnick and the microphone didn’t permit her to show off her skills (which we have seen and liked before). Mikel would have been better as a Rhonette, but she just didn’t have the tall and thin look the director wanted. [ETA a week later: She would have also been a great Audrey, but again, couldn’t get past the director’s casting biases.] It was the audience’s loss. James C. Gelinas, another Senior, was adequately menacing and maniacal as Orin, the dentist.

In the minor roles, Van Nuys had Janice Ha, John Geronilla, Brandom Thomas, Angelique Gross, April Machado, and Glessida Magaling. For the most part, they were adequate for what little they did, however I found the “Meek Shall Inherit” number a little overplayed and overdone, which detracted from it.

The four-piece orchestra was excellent (VNHS has wonderful musicians, and the music teacher Robert Eisenhart just won a major national award, the Mr. Hollands Opus Award). During the pre-show music, they played Inna Gadda Da Vida, and I found myself wondering how many in the audience actually recognized it.

Technically, there were some problems. I found the lighting design by Shauna Lucas, assisted by Erin Faigin, to be very effective. I particularly liked the use of the Gobos to created a skyline of the city and the chain link fence. Moving light design was by Josh Price assisted by Ryan Hamidi, with spots by Leslie Montano, Nico Reeve, and Slater Lopez. Sound was more problematic, as a number of on-stage mics kept going out. When they worked, it was great. When they didn’t…. Sound design was by Emily Tugwell. I found the costumes and hairstyles problematic: the most obvious problem was Mrs. Mushnick: whoever thought of dressing up what is supposed to be an old 1950s Jewish flower-shop owner, being played by a black girl, in a dress suit and *blond* wig, was beyond me [ETA a week later: Apparently the wig was grey, but from a distance, appeared blond–it was still a problem]. But worse was the time travel: Little Shop obstensibly takes place in the 1950s (certainly by the various song and TV references), and most of the actors just didn’t give off a 1950’s vibe. I’m not trying to say they needed to be dressed as Sock Hoppers from Grease or Happy Days, but adults in that time didn’t wear short slinky dresses or dress suits (they were more mid-length dresses), and even nerds wore ties, albeit thin ones. The set, designed by Mr. Tom Kirkpatrick and his stage class, adequately conveyed the Skid Row environment, but had difficulty with some other environments and might have been helped (if it possible in that space) with a backdrop that could go down in front of the shop for locals like the dentist or generic Skid Row.

In terms of the teaching staff: Mr. Randy Olea was director and runs the drama class. Mr. Olea just lost the drama room to a fire: donations of scripts and other theatrical material would be welcome (send them to Mr. Olea c/o the school). Adam Riggs Designs provided the Audrey II puppet. Mr. Marque Coy coordinated the lighting and sound students. Mr. Robert Eisenhart led the orchestra. Anita Morales and Julia Rachilewski designed the choreography.

There are four more performances of Little Shop: tonight at 7pm, and next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7pm. Tickets are available at the door. Van Nuys High School is located at 6535 Cedros Avenue, Van Nuys, CA 91411.

Upcoming Theatre: Our next professional production is March 22 @ 1pm, when we see “Frost/Nixon” at the Ahmanson (HotTix became available 2/18). March 28 @ 8pm brings “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” at Rep East. April 4 @ 2pm is “42nd Street” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. We’re planning on going to the Southern California Renaissance Faire on either April 11 or April 12. April 18 @ 8pm, after I take the CISSP exam, will be “Mauritius” at the Pasadena Playhouse. The weekend of April 25/26 is set aside for the OERM Spring Railfestival. May 2 or 3 (pending ticketing) will hopefully be “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Theatre League Thousand Oaks (this is their last weekend). May 10 (pending ticketing) should be “Is He Dead? at ICT Long Beach. May 17 (again, pending ticketing) should be “big” at West Coast Ensemble, to be followed by “The Green Room at Hermosa Beach Playhouse on May 24 (pending ticketing). The end of May (May 28, 29, 30) brings “Fiddler on the Roof” at Nobel Middle School, where nsshere may be involved with the lighting design. Lastly, June 6 @ 8pm is “The Wedding Singer” “Musical TBA” at Repertory East Playhouse, and June 20 @ 8pm is “The Little Foxes” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Quite an ambitious theatrical spring.


Fire At Van Nuys High School: Drama Room Lost

As you may (or may not) know, my daughter is in the Performing Arts Magnet at Van Nuys High School. Last night, there was a fire at the school, and the drama room was lost. There are some pictures in this report from KABC, including a video. According to nsshere, the drama program lost all of their scripts, past videos, monitors, etc. According to the Daily News, there was $70,000 worth of damage. The bungalow also housed the parent center, but there was evidently less damage there.

I’m going to try contacting some of the theatres we frequent to see if they might donate some scripts from previous productions to the program. If anyone has further ideas, please let me know.

[Oh, and in case you ask: Although they did have an arson crew investigate, word on campus is that there had been electrical problems in the room in the past, and that the fire was an electrical fire.]


That’sa One-a Spicy Meatballa

Last night, we went to see the 2nd performance of Scapino at Van Nuys High School [ETA: This review was edited slightly after the Saturday evening performance]. “‘Scapino” is a liberal adaptation of Moliere’s “Les Fourberies de Scapin” written by Jim Dale and Frank Dunlop, and designed to be performed in a zany commedia dell’arte style. The play takes place in contemporary Naples, Italy, where the leading character, Scapino, devises a complex plot to help two pairs of lovers against parental opposition that, it turns out, does not exist. Scapino is a rapscallion, a fast-talking, quick-thinking scamp who cleverly manipulates and cajoles everyone into doing what Scapino intends them to do. The story itself is a simple one: sons getting married to women their fathers don’t want them to marry; a scamp trying to help them; and everything working out right in the end (gee, this sounds like “The Fantastiks”). The story can evidently work in the right hands: after all, it was on Broadway and earned its original performers some Tony nominations. It appears to have been done in numerous locations, and has been successful. But note that I said “in the right hands”. More on that later.

This production was the product of “Actors in Action” (), which is a group of actors developed in the Performing Arts Magnet at Van Nuys High School. The actors all are reasonably inexperienced (after all, they are high-school students), but did an OK job. Let me call out a few whose performances I found noteworthy. First, I liked Dominic Gessel () (Scapino) — he was playful, and seemed to do a lot of accents and comedy very well (although, unfortunately, an Italian accent wasn’t one of them). I also enjoyed the two fathers: John Armstrong () (Argante) and Sevan Ghadimian ( ) — both spoke clearly and acted well, and conveyed their comedy well. An excellent repeat performer was Cody Banks () as Ottavio, one of the young men. Cody acted well, although he spoke a little too fast. Johnny Geronilla () as Sylvestro also showed some comic skills, especially in the gangster scene. Smaller roles who I thought had notable performers were Mikel Bossette () as Zerbinette — she’s a delight to watch in anything she’s in, and does comedy quite well; Quest Zeidler as Waiter #2, who made a valient attempt to sing “O Danny Boy” with a failing microphone (he did an excellent job on the song Saturday night); and James Gelinas (), who also had some good comedic timing. Others in the cast were Timothy Glick () (Leandro), Julia Rachilewski () (Giacinta), Celina Pacheco (Nurse), Sameer Nayak (Head Waiter), Sandra Duran () (Waitress), and Joseph Cayanan () (Waiter #1). The production was under the stage management of Astghik Sinanyan (), Patty Ponce (), and Mayra Mendoza ().

Technically, the set by Mr. Kirkpatrick and his unnamed students was workable. It was colorful and permitted the movement, although it only weakly suggested Italy. The sound by Mr. Coy and his sound-students (Emily Tugwell, Jayson Hill, with Slater Lopez, Nico, and Leslie Montano as spot technicians) had some microphone problems, especially with Tim Glick’s and Quest’s microphones in Friday’s performance (there were different problems in Saturday’s performance). The students also need to be coached to speak slower, so that we can hear what they say. Lighting, also by Mr. Coy was excellent. Although uncredited in the program, I should note that the lighting students (Shaunna Lucas, nsshere (), and Josh Price) did an excellent job running the board at our performance, although the spotlight was a bit abrupt going on and off. The backstage folks (who saved people from dying) were Anthony Flores and Christina Soldano)

Remember that earlier I alluded to some problems with the production, and used the phrase “in the right hands”. I don’t think the problem are in the script, as it has been received well. I can’t blame the actors, as they are still learning for the most part, and they did reasonable (although not fully professional) jobs. I think weaknesses were partially in the direction by Randy Olea, which failed to bring out the humor to an audience that was about 25 years too young to get many of the jokes. The physical comedy, for the most part, worked. The spoken comedy was lost to too fast speech, and poor Italian accents. The production would have been stronger if they didn’t attempt the fake Italian accents, which made those portions of the story harder to follow. I don’t know if it was in the original play or was a script modification, but the notion that any word ending in a vowel sound could be passed off as Italian became annoying after a while. But then again, they no longer teach Italian at Van Nuys.

The last performance of “Scapino” at Van Nuys High School is at 7:00pm tonight. Tickets are $10 at the door. The VNHS spring production will be “Little Shop of Horrors”.

As for us, what are our future theatre plans (beyond tonight’s performance of “Scapino”)? Although I won’t be there, the following weekend brings “Be Careful What You Wish For: A Series of Folktales from Around the World” at Nobel Middle School, where nsshere will be advising on lights and backstage stuff. Saturday December 20th we’ll be seeing “The Life” at the Steller Adler Theatre. That’s it for 2008, right now. Turning to 2009, January 17th brings “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” at Cabrillo Music Theatre. January will also likely bring “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Rep East (January 23rd – February 21st), and “Minsky’s at the Ahmanson (January 21 – March 1), although neither are ticketed yet. I’m also exploring tickets to “Cabaret” being done by the Aerospace Players (Jan 30-Feb 7). February 21 is “Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Musical” at the Pasadena Playhouse. I’m sure more will join the 1Q09 list as a peruse Goldstar Events, a wonderful way to find half-price tickets.


It’s The Word.

Last night, we went out to see “Grease” at Van Nuys High School. This was the first of many productions of the show in the San Fernando Valley: supposedly there will also be productions of “Grease” at Cleveland HS and at Taft HS, as well as a production at the end of May at Nobel MS. The Van Nuys production was of particular interest, as they have a Performing Arts Magnet that we have applied to for next year.

For those unfamiliar with the musical (yes, you, in the back, I see you). Grease hit Broadway in the early 1970s. It is set in 1959 at the fictional Rydell High School in Chicago, and basically tells the story of the greaser Danny Zucko and his relationship with the clean-cut girl Sandy Dumbrowski. Side stories include the adventures of the Burger Shop Boys and the Pink Ladies, the high-school dropout, a teen pregnancy scare, and gang fighting. Just your standard, wholesome, high-school musical fare. There are a number of versions of the script floating around, from the original stage production (just described), to the well-known movie version (with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John), to various hybrid and bastardizations. Van Nuys appears to have performed the original licensed stage script, with minimal modifications.

With such a well-known story, the focus of any review must be how the story was realized, not the quality of the story itself. As with any realization, that realization can be divided into three aspects: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There were a number of very good aspects of this production. The set was phenominal, especially for a high-school production. There was basically a three part set, with a school portion in front, and a burger joint / bedroom upstairs (upper stage left and right). The center could open to roll in “Greased Lightening”, a modified truck body (no engine) obviously provided by the auto shop. There was a full eight-piece student band (piano, bass, guitar (2), reeds (2), flute/percussion, and drums) which did an excellent job with both the musical numbers and incidental music.

Turning to the performance aspects: In general, the acting portion and the dancing portions of the performance were very strong. I was particularly impressed with the singing abilities of Kacey Marton (YouTube example of her singing Besame Mucho) as Sandy Dumbrowski and Stephanie Hoston as Marty (who did a killer job on “Freddie, my Love”). Ms. Marton is particularly impressive given she’s in the medical magnet, this was her first VNHS production, and she’s from a family of scientists (and did a killer webpage on Medieval Guilds). John Armstrong gave a strong performance as Danny Zuko, and Mikel Bossette (YouTube of a play she wrote and directed) and Leslie Montano did reasonably as Frenchy and Betty Rizzo, respectively. Also impressive was the dancing ability of Mia Jamili (YouTube) as Cha-Cha Digregorio. Also worthy of mention were the performances of Lisa Lee as Jan and Julia Rachilewski as Patty Simcox.

As for the bad: There appeared to be a significant sound problem: I’m unsure whether it was badly-placed microphones or a mixing problems, but often the actors could not be heard over the music. There were also portions where the actors just spoke too fast, further complicating the ability to hear their lines. The audience didn’t help, screaming out to their friends over the lines (but it was a high-school audience, not a theatre audience, so this might be expected). My daughter noticed some line flubs, but from my point of view, they were not significant enough to distract. Lastly (and this is indeed a nit), the stand-in for “Greased Lightening” was from the wrong era — it was a 1990s Chevy Truck, cherry-red primer, as opposed to a 1950’s Ford or Chevy. It is a nit because one wouldn’t expect a HS production to get a real 1950s car, but perhaps the auto shop could have added some chrome and fins somewhere 🙂

The ugly: There was one ugly moment, from my perspective. The “Teen Angel” number is supposed to be suave and smooth. The young man playing the part had the acting and dancing moves down, but just didn’t have the voice for the number.

Overall, I think it was a pretty-good job for a high-school production (betcha thought I would say “High School Musical”), especially considering that this was Van Nuys’ first musical production. I do hope they do more musical productions: they are great audience pleasers, and allow for the growth of numerous performance skills. The magnet coordinator noted that this musical was a true unifying event for the school: it is nice when something other than sports unifies a school.

The cast consisted of Reyna Hallett (Miss Lynch), Julia Rachilewski (Patty Simcox), Marlon Meyerson (Eugene Florczyk), Lisa Lee (Jan), Stephanie Hoston (Marty), Leslie Montano (Betty Rizzo), Erick Maldonado (Doody), Timothy Glick (Roger), Dominic Gessel (Kenicke), John Geronilla (Sonny LaTierri), Mike Bossette (Frenchy), Kacey Marton (Sandy Dumbrowski), John Armstrong (Danny Zuko), Cody Banks (Vince Fontaine), Aria Pakatchi (Johnny Casino/Teen Angel), and Mia Jamili (Cha-Cha Digregorio). The singing and dancing ensemble consisted of Angie Beas, Joseph Cayanan, Paulina De La Rosa, Ashlyn Killham, April Machado, Amanda Molano, Deeanna Padilla, Marissa Perplies, Brandon Thomas, Nikki Stevens, and Kaitlin Marie Walters. The orchestra was conducted by Robert Eisenhart assisted by Aidan Reynolds, with Jung Lee (Piano), Kayla Cota (Bass), Aidan Reynolds (Guitar), Isaac Roman (Guitar), Dylan Rodriguez (Reeds), Joanne Ayalia (Reeds), San Juanita Martinez (Flute/Percussion), and Arturo Martinez (Drums). The overall production was supervised by Randy Olea.

So what’s next on our theatre calendar? Next weekend is a gothic weekend, with “Jekyll & Hyde” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Sat 3/15 @ 2pm, followed the next day by “Sweeney Todd” at the Ahmanson @ 1pm. The following weekend (3/22) is “W;t” at REP East. On Sat 4/5 @ 8pm we have the premier of the new musical “Mask” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Either that week or the next week we’ll be getting tickets for “The Who’s Tommy” at Cal State Northridge. I still need to figure out productions for late April and early May — possibilities include “Pippin” at East West Players (5/8-6/8) and “The Immigrant” at Colony Theatre (4/2-5/4). On 5/31, we’re scheduled to see “A Chorus Line” @ 2pm at the Ahmanson, and “Of Mice and Men” @ 8pm at the Pasadena Playhouse. We’re likely to change those due to the performance of “Grease” at Nobel MS on 5/29, 5/30, and 5/31. That takes us to the end of 2Q08.