A Christmas Feast
The Sierra Madre Playhouse is presenting a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol this season. It is Dickens's wonderful story, but Director Christina Harris's interpretation is deeper and more soul searching than many versions as we follow Scrooge through his gloomy past and see how he became the miser we all recognize. Her direction with its innovative touches brings the original tale to life beautifully.
Scott Harris has the role of Scrooge. This reviewer has never seen a Scrooge get so emotionally involved with what he was watching from his own past. It was actually captivating and oft times riveting.
Tim Stafford played the determined nephew Fred who wouldn't give up on wishing his equally resolute uncle a Merry Christmas. Stafford also played the Ghost of Christmas Future and the character John.
Anthony Bravo and Marlee Candell were the Cratchits, played with heart-wrenching concern for their lame son.
Many in the supporting cast took on multiple roles which kept the story moving along with joy in the lively dance numbers and pathos during the looks back into Scrooge's past. And the musical numbers were often done acappela. Musical Director Rich Dembowski did a terrific job.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse is famous for its innovative sets and this production doesn't disappoint. There were many scene changes and Set Designer John Vertrees captured the essence of each one with minimum props for maximum effect.
And the costumes…the costumes. Ye Olde London was alive with gorgeous costumes on the wealthy as well as magnificent rags on the poor. The Ghost of Christmas Past was glorious, but the pièce de résistance was the Ghost Christmas Future. His costume was stunning and worth the price of admission alone. Liz Peterson outdid herself as Costume Designer.
The play is a classic and this production keeps up the holiday tradition magnificently.
The play runs through December 23, 2013. http://sierramadreplayhouse.org Phone: (626) 355-4318.
DRIVING MISS DAISY
Driving Miss Daisy at the Sierra Madre Playhouse in Sierra Madre, California, will blow you away. They extended the run due to rave reviews and boy did they do right. This is an extraordinary play and the acting is breathtaking.
Even if you've seen the movie, this has touches and nuances that are captivating and a few beautiful changes. Three actors total, but they fill the small stage with more life and feeling than a full company of actors at The Met.
The award winning story by Alfred Uhry first came to the stage in 1987. This production directed by Christian Lebano does things the movie didn't do. And you'll love every minute.
Brad Reed plays the son who wants his mother to take on a driver after she has a car accident. His southern charm and quiet resolve to do right for his mother no matter what is so much fun.
Then there is stately Willie C. Carpenter who plays Hoke, the new driver. He brings great depth to the character. We watch that quiet man push through the boundaries placed on him by society. He can finally talk as an equal to the irascible Miss Daisy after many long years.
Then there is Miss Daisy, played by Mary Lou Rosato. When you realize at the end of the play you have watched her age before your eyes, you will be totally blown away by the performance. The physical changes she brings to her character going from her early seventies to her nineties will have you thinking you must be watching several different actresses.
Small touches, a minimalist stage, superb acting. This was one of the very best plays I have seen. It runs through March 30. Plays Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. A total joy. Box Office: 626.355-4318. www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
Is There a Dog Barking?
A most intriguing play opened at The Sierra Madre Playhouse to a packed house. Woman in Mind, skillfully written by Alan Ayckbourn, is marvelously directed by Christian Lebano who allows the story to unfold bit by bit as we are taken deep into the mind of a troubled woman named Susan.
Before the curtain goes up there is the sound of a dog barking somewhere in the distance. It barks and barks. But who actually hears it?
The play takes place in a charming English garden described as a vast estate with tennis court and swimming pool by Susan, the main character, but the yard is considered somewhat smaller by others.
Susan, played by the extraordinarily gifted actress, Sharon Sharth, dominates the stage with her portrayal of a woman caught in a loveless marriage. She is discovered prostrate on the stage in the opening act, the victim of a misplaced rake. Bill, a country doctor, portrayed by Dan Wingard with a range of facial expressions that captures every odd occurrence that happens in this ever changing tableau, comes to Susan's aid. But Bill has a bit of a crush on the mercurial Susan which comes out as he tries to lead her away from the edge of insanity.
While Bill goes off to find Susan a cup of tea and to check on the ambulance that is supposed to be on its way, Susan's family enters. There is her handsome husband Andy, played with dashing swagger by Rees Pugh. He is every woman's dream man - rich, talented, devoted.
Then Susan's dashing brother, Tony, and her lovely daughter, Lucy, appear in spiffy tennis togs, just off the courts and bursting with good cheer, each concerned with the well-being of the injured Susan. Angus McEwan plays Tony with a hint of mischievousness at the beginning, but as the play progresses, his character changes into something quite different. The same is true of the lovely Victoria Mayers who portrays daughter Lucy with spunk and devotion to dear old mum, but her personality morphs into someone else as the story unfolds.
When Doctor Bill returns, the idyllic family has left the stage and Bill is quite confused when Susan says she has just spoken to her devoted husband, because Bill understands that the husband is on his way home. And when he does appear, he is in the form of Gerald, the local vicar, played with quiet humor by the gangly David Hadinger. He has masterfully crafted this self-centered character.
Susan accepts this other life begrudgingly, but she can't seem to let go of that other life she so wants to live. Meanwhile, we are introduced to her sister-in-law, the ever-grieving widow, Muriel, played to a fare-the-well by Anne Etue. Muriel, who so wants to reconnect with her dead husband in the biblical way, has imposed herself into the family with Gerald's blessing. To help out, Muriel does the cooking, but cooking is not her thing. Making instant coffee with regular grind coffee has everyone spitting out bits of the grounds. It is hilarious.
Susan and Gerald confess their mutual lack of love for one another, but there once was a spark. It begat their only son, Rick, a young man who fled the house years earlier to escape a domineering mother who ran off every girl he ever brought home. Nathan Hertz plays Rick with just the right amount of compassion for his troubled mother, but the young man still must live somewhere else. When he mentions he has recently married and is moving to Thailand and has no intension of bring the new wife around for a year or two, Susan can't understand what she has done wrong. She basically blames her husband. This has to be the case, because her daughter in her other life tells her everything and wants to share her wonderful life with her mother.
As for Gerald, he is too busy writing his magnum opus, a history of the local parish that he has been working on for years to the exclusion of Susan. This neglect is obviously having an effect on Susan, but when she tries to reconcile her idyllic family with the more mundane one, she starts putting words into everybody's mouth until everyone is speaking everybody else's words and Susan slips further off the edge.
There is a dynamic scene when Susan and Gerald declare their mutual dislike for each other while the rather snooty daughter and brother egg her on to the point when Susan yells at Lucy to shut up.
As both her worlds collide, a thunderstorm sweeps over the garden and once again Susan is found lying on the ground, but now she wants Gerald to get out of her life for good. He is only angry that she burned his precious book, all 60 pages of it! She can't remember the deed.
The remainder of the play must be seen to be appreciated, for this trip down the rabbit hole with Alice can only be believed by sitting in the theatre and enjoying every twist and turn. Each character undergoes a metamorphosis, except maybe Susan who has been there already. The acting is superb and the staging uncanny. Watch and enjoy. You have never been in a place like this before.
The play runs until July 7, 2012, at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 West Sierra Madre Boulevard, in Sierra Madre, CA. Call for tickets: 626.355.4318 or at www.sierramadreplayhouse.org.
Ray Bradbury's Gift of Love
A feast for the eyes, ears, and heart is the World Premiere engagement of the astounding musical play, Ray Bradbury's Wisdom 2116 now playing at the Fremont Centre Theatre in Pasadena, California.
As with all of Bradbury's stories, there is a story behind the story. Over fifty years ago, the venerable author met esteemed actor Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester. Laughton had originally asked Bradbury to write him a science fiction tale. Bradbury dashed off Fahrenheit 451, but to his dismay, the actor said it won't work. (Would that he knew how that story eventually came out.)
Nevertheless, Laughton, mentor and friend to the young writer, asked if he would pen a musical. Again Bradbury said yes and came up with Wisdom. But circumstances beyond everyone's control halted production. And finally, Laughton's death seemed to curtail all thoughts of reviving the project.
But dreams never die and in a new century, Ray Bradbury brought back the tale he wrote for his friends those many years ago. Dedicated and inspired by Mr. Laughton and his wife, this tale is both a Christmas present and Valentine.
Developed, Directed, and Choreographed by the uber-talented Steve Josephson, with music by John Hoke, book and lyrics by Ray Bradbury. Set Design by J.W. Layne. The fantastic costumes designed by Sarah Schuessler. The astounding make-up by Darlene Krantz, and wigs by Gregg Barnette. Lighting by Stuart A. Fabel. Featured also were the delightful Czech Marionettes, so artfully crafted, they needed recognition.
The performance begins with Mr. Marionette, played by magnificent baritone, David Stoneman, seated on a large trunk. With flute in hand, he pipes the opening notes, then lifts the trunk's lid and out comes a life-size marionette. She is followed by another and then another, until five marvelous dancers have taken the stage. The Opening Night performance featured Christine Reese, Samantha Marcella, Jesse Mclean, Steve Josephson, and Anthony Scarano. Alternating in the roles are Shanti Harter, Sarah Mann, Monica Thibodeaux, and Drew Ruesch.
The wonderful story centers around an elderly couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Each wishes to provide something special for their respective spouses in case of their demise. Shades of "Gift of the Magi," this futuristic couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wycherly, see Mr. Marionette's delightful puppets (the Czech Marionettes) and then hear him say he can make any size life-like robot, so they each seek him out and ask for a replica of themselves, but younger, and with all their imagined attributes. She wants the robot to have a high I.Q., be a sexual volcano, etc., etc. He wants an even higher I.Q., know every song ever written, and be a veritable fount of information. Their desires become so obviously exaggerated that Mr. Marionette says in an aside that "they are so full of pomp and flatteries, there will be no room for the batteries."
Lisa Morrice, who plays Mrs. Wycherly, has both an amazing voice and incredible facial movements that captures the older character perfectly. Rob Harryman plays the elderly husband. The young actor mastered the senior physicality with stooped shoulders and shuffling gait.
Mr. Marionette enlists his own robots to build the duplicates. One of the robots, Anthony Scarano, was a Wow! doing his "mechanical man" dance. (Note: all the characters on stage, human and robot, sport a barcode on their neck. So very "Bradbury" to think of that for our future.)
Once the robots are finished, two large wrapped gift boxes are delivered to the anxious couple. Mr. Wycherly opens his first. The fetching bride doll amazes him, so he winds her up and lets her perform. With a coy smile and saucy stance, she entreats him to "Just squeeze me." He does, and this little hottie with the bawdy repartee quotes passages from famous books, recalls incidents from Wycherly's married life, and talks and talks and talks. Jessie Mclean plays the Bride-bot with sass and charm.
Mrs. Wycherly discovers a bare-chested Chippendale-like robot in her box. He loves to dance. He dances her off her feet. The incredible Steve Josephson did the honors first night.
Mr. Wycherly manages to get the Bride-bot back in the box and pleads for Mr. Marionette to "unscrew her," because he can't shut her up. The older couple cling to each other, distressed over these young androids who know nothing of life. Lessons are learned before Mr. Marionette puts all the dolls back in the trunk.
There will never be a time in history when Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 will be irrelevant. The grand old gentleman of letters wrote one of his most celebrated novels fifty-five years ago. It could have been written yesterday.
TV game shows and reality shows clutter our minds with nonsense. A culture with more pictures and fewer words sends us back to the cave painting era rather than to Shakespeare or Victor Hugo or…Bradbury.
But you are in luck. Ray Bradbury's science fiction classic has come to life on stage at the Fremont Centre Theatre in Pasadena, presented by his own Pandemonium Theatre Company, and directed by Alan Neal Hubbs in such an exciting way, you will see the pages of Bradbury's book come to life before your eyes. John Edw. Blankenchip designed the stark, yet arresting, sets.
In this bleak, futuristic time when books are outlawed, Guy Montag, played movingly by David Mauer, struggles with his increasing alarm of this Brave New World and his growing panic over the radical ideas creeping into his head. Ideas about what the world would be like if all those long lost books weren't really gone.
So when Montag, a fireman of the future who has spent a decade burning books, meets an intelligent, home-schooled young girl, played poignantly by Jessica D. Stone, who has been taught by her father that there was a time when people weren't afraid to exchange ideas, Montag rebels. Then the girl and her family disappear.
Montag tries to get his fearful and naive wife, played with wide-eyed perfection by Magenia Tovah, to join him in his rebellion and read one of the books he has stolen, but she succumbs to the Siren Song of that vast wasteland: television that literally plays on every wall throughout their modern, cold, and impersonal house. She cannot tear herself away from the reality show starring herself. Everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame in this future time.
Fire Chief Beatty, played with menacing resolve by Michael Pritchard, astounds Montag by telling him, he, too, has rescued books from the inferno. His house is piled high with these quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. How can this be? questions Montag. To be caught with books in one's possession means certain death. Beatty's frosty reply: "I never read them," therefore it isn't a crime. A chilling statement.
The only friend Guy Montag finds is Professor Faber, played brilliantly by Steven Robert Wollenberg, who gives Montag a listening device for his ear. Faber can hear every word said around Montag and can communicate to him through the device. Montag fears he will be trading one Big Brother for another, but Faber tells his new friend to have faith, listen to the words spoken in his ear, and make up his own mind. True freedom
With the mechanical hound of hell on his heels, Montag tries to escape. Is there a future for him or is free thought gone forever? Go see the play and read the book.
Mr. Bradbury has said his story is not about censorship. It's not about burning books and indoctrinating the population with one set of ideas. It's about no ideas. Everything is provided by the government. No thinking necessary.
"We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal…, but everyone made equal..." is a line from the play. Let's hope it's only a play and not a premonition.
Great writing, great thinking, a great play. Don't miss this one.
Mr. Bradbury spoke a few words before the play started on opening night. He mentioned writing the original short story he called "The Fireman" when he was 34 years old. Every magazine turned down the original story at the time, thinking it was too radical for publication. An up and coming publisher took a chance on the story and published it in three installments, paying Mr. Bradbury the whopping sum of $400. It was a wise move. The name of the publication: Playboy. Both parties did exceedingly well in their future.
As for the title of Mr. Bradbury's famous story, he wondered at what temperature books started to burn. He called various college science departments, but none had an answer. He then thought to contact the fire department. After consulting a book that listed the various temperatures at which certain things caught fire, the fireman returned with the answer. Books burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Bradbury thought it far more poetic to reverse the order of those words, hence his memorable title.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author made himself available to fans at a reception after the production. When asked if any more of his books have been turned into plays, the 88-year-old Mr. Bradbury's face lit up and he said, "Dandelion Wine is currently in production in Russia." Also Falling Upward and Lafayette, Farewell have been staged. He mentioned, "They're planning a new movie version of Fahrenheit 451." He wasn't thrilled with Truffaut's 1967 effort. He also has a new short story anthology coming out February of 2009, called We'll Always Have Paris.
The forever young Mr. Bradbury is a National Treasure.
The Illustrious Bradbury
A nearly bare stage dressed with a solitary tree constructed of metal rods and crumpled chicken wire foliage, and a backdrop consisting of a single viewing screen that changed color was the tableau on which nine totally enthralling stories from the inimitable Ray Bradbury came to life opening night at the Fremont Theatre in Pasadena, California.
Directed by David Smith-English from material written and adapted by Mr. Bradbury, The Illustrated Bradbury made its Los Angeles Premiere with a small, multifaceted cast that captured characters ranging from a disgruntled man who confessed to a murder, a family of four escaping the Depression, an Irish bloke who discovered a unique form of exercise, to an old woman who refuses to give up the ghost. And there were more roles in this presentation: a Cuban, a private eye, a wily inventor, and one particular character drove home the most famous soliloquy from Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
The actor…yes actor, who captured all these magnificently crafted characters, was the brilliant thespian, Tobias Andersen, who did this one-man show with such ease and style, you felt that the stage was crowded with all these talented players doing their parts flawlessly.
Actually there was another character on stage. Throughout the telling of these nine tales, there was the constant, steady voice and heartbeat of Ray Bradbury, for without his words, all there would have been was an empty stage.
Tobias Andersen formed a life-long friendship with Mr. Bradbury after having been the first actor to tackle the pivotal role of Fire Captain Beatty in the original production of Fahrenheit 451 at the Colony Theatre in L.A. in 1977.
The nine stories in the production are woven together by a human tapestry, The Illustrated Man, who is encountered by the narrator. The idea, taken from Bradbury's celebrated novel of the same name, has a young man meet this tattooed marvel along a country road and he is astonished by the elaborate paintings undulating on the man's flesh. The Illustrated Man considers himself cursed, not able to find work due to these paintings that come to life on his very skin. As the man falls asleep, the stories begin.
The first tale, "The Murderer," written in 1953, will make you think Bradbury had access to a Time Machine when he wrote it. The story centers around a man who confesses to killing his telephone. He cries, "Phones change the meanings of words." And worst of all, when it rings, that means there is someone on the other end. The man wished for a revolution where in people would stop "being in touch." And perhaps most prescient of all, he rails against the Medusa who freezes people every night. Hint: he shot his TV.
"The Foghorn" tells of a lighthouse keeper who notices the churning sea as a monster rises out of the "deeps" in answer to the plaintive call of the foghorn that sounds as melancholy as "an empty house." Then the beast answers back in the fog. It's love.
A Depression Era story called "The Inspired Chicken Motel" finds a family crossing the country in search of work. They stop at a motel and are greeted by the proprietor who listens to their woes that are like seventeen million others who are out of work, and then shows them her treasures. One of her hens, the brightest and most wonderful of all those dumb creatures, laid two special eggs. One bears the image of a skull, the other an inscription: Rest in Peace - Prosperity is Near. Doom or Optimism awaits you. It's your choice.
"The Anthem Sprinter" is a light-hearted story about an Irishman who created a game out of who can exit the local cinema fastest after the final scene is flashed on the screen and the national anthem is played.
The absolutely delightful story, "There Was an Old Woman" finds a spinster sitting in her living room, knitting, talking to a young man with a six-foot long wicker basket. The woman realizes what that basket is for and defies the man to approach her. She has remained a single lady and avoided people in general just to stave off having to discuss death in any manner. She won't listen to the radio or hear talk of war. But she is snatched when she falls asleep. She walks off the stage, angry that she had to die.
Then there was an intermission.
When the play resumed, the "old woman" comes back, this time loaded for bear. She confronts the mortician and threatens to haunt him for 200 years if she isn't given back her body. The end of the story is to die for…
Another story, "A Graveyard for Lunatics," finds an actor who won fame playing Christ on film and who parlayed that celebrity into a rather scandalous, shallow life, returns to Hollywood to once more play a character far above his station.
A classic film noir story with a humorous twist finds a Private Detective named Ray (or Raymundo as he's called down at the Cuba Libre Bar in Havana) searching for a notorious parrot. This bird was a close confidant of Papa Hemingway. Rumor has it, Papa dictated his last story to the bird. Oily Shelly Cappone (who reminded me of Truman Capote) kidnapped the bird and will sell it to the highest bidder. Raymundo tracks down both bird and bad guy and uses a clever ruse to disguise the bird and spirit it away.
Two selections from Fahrenheit 451 are presented, one from Professor Faber as he tells about the lack of quality in writing: quality of information, quality of time to digest the meaning, and the innate right of people to determine what they want to read, not to have it dictated to them.
The longer selection came from Fire Chief Beatty who decries the right of every group of people who demand their rights supersede those of everyone else, thus crushing all people into equality of sameness. That section alone explains why Fahrenheit will live through the ages.
The last two selections feature an inventor who lives in a time of great despair and who gives people hope by telling them he has traveled into the future in a homemade time travel machine and tells everyone the future is wonderful (The Toynbee Convector), and a story taken from "The Illustrated Man" called "The Fire Balloons" which has space travelers encountering beings who have shed their temporal bodies and have achieved immortality by realizing each person is a temple unto himself.
One touching moment in the presentation was during "The Foghorn." Tobias Andersen, in the persona of the lighthouse keeper, was commenting on the cry of the mysterious beast from the sea and the plaintiff foghorn, when I heard a loud sigh from the audience. Mr. Bradbury was in attendance and he was reacting to the sound of his own words being delivered with such passion from the stage. It was beautiful.
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