Theater Reviews: Our Town, The Crucible, Big

Is He Dead

GO  BIG Director Richard Israel and his fine cast have a first-rate revival of this 1996 Broadway musical, based on the film that made Tom Hanks a star. And if you’ve seen the movie and think you know the story, think again: You can expect a few witty surprises here. Big (John Weidman, book; David Shire, music; Richard Maltby, lyrics) is a whimsical tale about Josh (L.J. Benet), an undersized teenager whose oversized crush on a schoolmate results in a startling metamorphosis when a carnival contraption grants his wish to be “big.” When he wakes up as an adult, Josh (Will Collyer) has his hands full coping with life, his best friend, Billy (Sterling Beaumon), and a heartbroken mom (Lisa Picotte). When he stumbles into a high-caliber job with a toy company, he catches the eye of corporate climber Susan (the outstanding Darrin Revitz) and finds romance, but he ultimately discovers that life as a 13-year-old adult is not all that great. Israel has done a remarkable job staging this piece on a small stage, and manages the large cast — which features some fine adolescent actors and actresses — quite well. Christine Lakin’s choreography is polished and attractive, with many of the dances evincing an edgy comic expressiveness. Musical director Daniel Thomas does equally fine work. El Centro Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through June 28. (323) 460-4443. A West Coast Ensemble production. (Lovell Estell III)

COURTING VAMPIRES Far from the traditional fare surrounding the fanged denizens of the dark, this world premiere from playwright Laura Schellhardt explores the mindscape of straight-laced Rill Archer (Carey Peters), a woman whose free-spirited younger sister Nina (Maya Lawson) becomes seduced by a vampire named Jim Slade (Bo Foxworth, who plays all of the males roles). Seeking justice and solace, Rill, dressed in robotic gray, retells the sequence of events that led to the seduction, skipping around in time and space while revealing the sisters’ relationships with each other, their father and Rill’s co-worker Gill. Set against Kurt Boetcher’s set design that resembles a giant file cabinet, and complemented by Tim Swiss’ lighting design, the scenes in the courtroom of Rill’s mind are by turns funny and gravely serious, exploring the characters’ fears, desires and inhibitions. Schellhardt is clearly accomplished, penning lines chock-full of witty lingual gymnastics and unique turns of phrase. Director Jessica Kubzansky sets the bar high as usual, ensuring that her actors navigate the complex rhythms of the text and carve out their characters in sharp relief. The cast members too are talented and faithfully trace the twists and turns of their characters, especially Foxworth, whose multiple roles are clearly defined. Unfortunately, the whole doesn’t end up equaling the sum of its parts, leaving the audience with numerous great moments that don’t fuse into a powerful or coherent story. Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through June 7. (626) 683-6883. (Mayank Keshaviah)

CROWNS This musical by Regina Taylor examines the passionate attachment of certain churchgoing African-American women for their hats. Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, it turns on the interaction between Yolanda (Angela Wildflower Polk), a tough street girl from Brooklyn raging with grief over the murder of her brother, and various women she encounters after she’s shipped off to South Carolina to live with her grandmother (Paula Kelly). The book that was the musical’s source material consists of an elegant collection of photo portraits and firsthand reminiscences; Taylor appropriates these as monologues, then juxtaposes them with original dialogue and gospel hymns. The thrust of the show — increasingly churchly as the evening wears on — is the effort to educate Yolanda regarding the importance of hats to her identity and her spirituality. Under Israel Hicks’ direction, the focus is clear but its execution — both script and performance — is disappointing. Five female performers each deliver various monologues that simply don’t add up to recognizable characters who serve the story — itself a cobbled construct. Lackluster choreography, less than top-notch vocals and indifferent lighting also detract, as does the production’s two-hour length, without intermission. The strongest element is the outstanding contribution of Clinton Derricks-Carroll in a variety of male roles, but especially as a fervently possessed, pulpit-thumping preacher. In an uneven ensemble, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Suzzanne Douglas are worthy of note, as are the instrumentals, under Eric Scott Reed’s musical direction. Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through June 14. (323) 964-9768. An Ebony Repertory Theatre/Pasadena Playhouse production. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  THE CRUCIBLE In the days of HUAC and Senator Joseph McCarthy, when it was dangerous for any left-leaning writer to criticize government actions, playwright Arthur Miller approached the subject indirectly, writing about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 as a metaphor for McCarthy’s reckless accusations. But as this illuminating production makes clear, the play remains eloquent and relevant, and director Marianne Savell gives it a sharp new focus. In addition to examining the plight of John and Elizabeth Proctor (Bruce Ladd and Nan McNamara), both accused of witchcraft, she highlights two of the accusers: The paranoid, egocentric, hysterical Reverend Parris (Daniel J. Roberts) is ultimately destroyed by the madness he has unleashed, while decent man of conscience Reverend Hale (Gary Clemmer) believes the charges of witchcraft until it’s too late to halt the madness. The witch-hunt, launched by a toxic brew of superstition, fear, lies, self-righteousness and individual malice, becomes an inexorable force, grinding up accusers and accused. Ladd and McNamara deftly capture the flawed but powerful integrity of John and Elizabeth, while Roberts and Clemmer subtly delineate the growing despair of the two clergymen. They are given strong support by a huge and able cast. Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2:30 p.m., additional matinee Sat., May 16, 2:30 p.m., through June 7. (323) 462-8460. (Neal Weaver)


GO  THE FANTASTICKS Fifty years of encroaching cynicism have not diminished the whimsical charm of this diminutive musical fable by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Callow youth Matt (Lucas Grabeel) and dreamy girl Luisa (Alison Woods) romantically believe they are star-crossed lovers — not knowing their parents (Harry Groaner and Eileen T’Kaye) have created the illusion through a feigned feud. They hire the mystical bandit El Gallo (Eric McCormack) to unite the couple, but he must first give them a taste of the world. Darryl Archibald has beautifully rendered the delicate score, and his small orchestra and the cast sing the familiar tunes (including “Try to Remember”) with the purity of midcentury musical comedy. Director Jason Alexander treats the piece with respect, allowing its gentle, often joyous essence to prevail. He does add an extraneous theme of old-fashioned vaudeville magic tricks, but this gambit works, adding just a bit of visual flair without overshadowing the story. The magic also provides moments for Lee Martino’s fine choreography. Bradley Kaye’s nifty set design limits the actors to a small, oval stage with a severe downward slope, which brings the play’s intimacy to the fore. Kate Bergh’s costumes underscore the timelessness of the piece, with a lovely balance of pieces from myriad periods. UCLA Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, Wstwd.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., through May 17. (310) 825-2101. A Reprise Theater Company production. (Tom Provenzano)

GO  THE IDEA MAN Kevin King’s comedy-drama about class conflict in a small manufacturing firm. Elephant Theatre Company, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through June 6. (323) 960-4410. See Theater Feature.

GO  IS HE DEAD? Mark Twain’s farce, here adapted by David Ives, follows the imagined plight of painter Jean-François Millet (Perry Ojeda) — whose works loom over Stephen Gifford’s stylish and utilitarian set design. (“The Gleaners” is probably Millet’s most famous painting, capturing the rustic humanity of French peasants working in the fields.) A young artist named Agamemnon Buckner (Brian Stanton) helps fathom the plot to help generate income for a garrett of young starving artists in a province outside Paris in 1846. If they can spread the news that Millet is near death, the value of his paintings could go through the roof — as opposed to lying in their current marsh while the painter is known to be alive. So Millet fakes his own illness and death, returning into society in drag as his own grieving sister. Millet leaves behind an equally grieving sweetheart, Marie Leroux (Suzanne Petrela), whose failure to recognize her beau-in-a-dress adds to the farce. Stir in a villain plucked from melodrama — an art dealer, naturally — named Bastien Andre (Steve Marvel), who tries to usurp the “dead” painter’s works in exchange for the exorbitant interest he’s owed on a loan he made to Millet. Joe Fria is marvelously, physically odd in an array of roles, prancing with his rear end extended backward and out of joint, in roles ranging from Englishmen to the King of France. By Act 2, Gifford’s set has melted into a series of doors lining the back of the stage — all there to be slammed. During one entrance, poor Agamemnon got stuck when he slammed a door upon entering, leaving his coattails jammed in the now shut door. It just took a second of him groping helplessly for forward motion before he realized his plight, reopened the door behind him and set himself free, while the audience dissolved in paroxysms of laughter. Even the planned humor, under Shashin Desai’s gorgeous staging, was a bouquet of completely stupid wit, based on mistaken identities, a coffin filled with bricks and pungent lindberger cheese, in order to fool the authorities. Millet, pretending to be his own sister, meets his oblivious sweetheart and plants on her a lingering kiss. Goodness, Marie exclaims, after this seeming display of lesbian lust, “You must stop smoking.” International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through May 24. (562) 436-4610. (Steven Leigh Morris)


A NUMBER A widower (John Heard) discovers that a hospital has bred clones of his bachelor son (the aptly named Steve Cell), making him a father to an unknown number of identical young men. The son, Bernard, is confused, but open to meeting his brothers; the dad immediately cries “lawsuit!” — allowing playwright Caryl Churchill to plunge straight away into her themes about the boundaries, rights and values of an identity. (And when Bernard suspects he’s not the original, is that even worse?) Churchill argues that personality is separate from genetics and introduces us to three Bernards as distinct as Goldilocks’ bears: one bitter, one sweet, and one conflicted. Cell plays all three, and it’s hard not to interpret director Bart DeLorenzo’s decision to signify the role-switching by having Cell button, unbutton or strip off his overshirt as a lack of trust in either the performer or the audience. Their father is clearly hiding a secret, and Heard captures him as a man defeated before the play even begins — he resolves every confrontation by telling the Bernards what they want to hear. If there is one truth under his lies, it’d be the play’s only singularity: While the clones share a disgust for him, it springs from different reasons. “You don’t look at me the same way,” the widower says of how he tells them apart. But unlike him, we never see the clones or their father as people, only players in a fable that’s constrained by the very dichotomies it wants to explore. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through June 21. (310) 477-2055. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  OUR TOWN Upon learning that one of L.A.’s most daring theater companies, the Actors’ Gang, is tackling Thornton Wilder’s beloved three-act stage perennial about life, love and death, one is keen to witness the group’s “take” on the play’s universal themes. This play is, after all, the hoop through which almost every high school theater department must jump. Interestingly enough, director Justin Zsebe’s interpretation in his intimate yet powerful production is one of surprising and sincere faithfulness to the play’s tone and mood. This is a beautifully rendered and moving Our Town. Narrated by Steven M. Porter’s genial yet crusty Stage Manager, the play’s story of life in a small New England town, centering on the romance and marriage of sweet young Emily (a luminous Vanessa Mizzone) and her beloved George (Chris Schultz), receives a staging whose basic simplicity belies unexpected depths of subtly articulated feeling. Zsebe admittedly tosses in a couple of visual conceits that might cause Wilder to whirl in his grave: There’s a character who performs a dazzling yet wholly irrelevant acrobatic dance from a long sash, seemingly just because it looks good; and, during the play’s third act, set in the underworld, the deceased characters hang from playground swings, when simple chairs are called for in the script. Yet the ensemble work is deft and subtle — and moments that are often corny in other, lesser productions evoke laughter and tears here — from the beautiful scene in which Ma Webb (Lindsley Allen) and Ma Gibbs (Annemette Andersen) shuck their peas, to the touching one in which Schultz’s George suffers his wedding night–cum–fear of mortality jitters at the altar. Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through June 16. (310) 838-GANG. An Actors’ Gang production. (Paul Birchall)

GO  RICHARD III REDUX: OUR RADICAL ADAPTATION The radical part of this stylish, modern-dress patchwork isn’t so much in director John Farmanesh-Bocca’s decision to preface Richard III with a flashback version of its chronological antecedent, Henry VI, Part 3. Nor is it in the Procrustean condensation required to fit both plays into an evening that clocks in at a mere 100 minutes. What is radical is the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts production’s argument that doing so makes for a more sympathetic, emotionally traumatized Richard (Stephan Wolfert). If the case isn’t airtight, blame Shakespeare — even Clarence Darrow would cop a plea before the persuasive power with which the Bard prosecutes his most irredeemably sociopathic of stage villains. That the effort proves such a rollicking good time is strictly the fault of Farmanesh-Bocca and his iridescent ensemble (ably lit by Randy Brumbaugh). Wolfert’s antic performance as the crook-backed usurper is almost Lon Chaney–esque in its physical dimensions, confidently spanning the valiant-defender-of-York honor in Henry and the gleefully scheming gargoyle of Richard. Bruce Cervi and Tim Halligan provide nuanced support as Richard’s ill-fated brothers caught in the cross hairs of dynastic ambition, while the versatile Carvell Wallace inflects the conspiratorial Buckingham with a distinctly Kissingerian menace. The best reason for this redux, however, may be Lisa Pettett’s tantalizing turn as Queen Margaret, a portrayal of matriarchal political manipulation right out of The Manchurian Candidate. Mortise & Tenon Furniture Store, 2nd floor, 446 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Sun. & Mon., 8 p.m., through June 8. (888) 398-9348. A Veterans Center for the Performing Arts production. (Bill Raden)

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