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Stage Raw

Stage Raw: Babes in Toyland

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Mon, Dec 15, 2008 at 12:00 PM


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BABES IN TOYLAND is this week's Theater Pick. Writes Tom Provenzano: "While visions of nutcrackers and victorian misers dance through the yuletide entertainment listings, this production offers a delightful alternative. Forty kids, age 9 to 19 romp, through Alice Hammerstein-Mathias and William Mount-Burke's contemporary version of Victor Herbert's operetta. But this is no kiddie pageant designed for parents to gush at their children on stage . . ."

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Babes in Toyland Photo by Ed Krieger

The full review is embedded in this coming week's Comprehensive Theater Listings

At your fingertips: Last week's New Theatre Reviews, and this week's Stage Feature on three plays about erotica. 

Also reviewed this week, Cy Coleman's The Life presented by Jaxx Theatricals at the Stella Adler; It's Just Sex at Two Roads Theatre; the West Coast premiere of Charles Busch's Shanghai Moon at Glendale's Luna Playhouse; Love's Labour's Lost presented by Porters of Hellgate at North Hollywood's Whitemore Lindley Theatre; Musical Theatre of Los Angeles' West Side Story at the Hudson; and Holiday Fever! at the Secret Rose Theatre, also in North Hollywood.

The latest New Theater Reviews are embedded within this coming weekend's Comprehensive Theatre Listings, press the Read On tab directly below.

COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS for December 19-25, 2008

(The weekend's New Reviews are embedded in "Continuing Performances" below . You may also be able to search for them by title using your computer's search program.)

Our critics are Paul Birchall, Lovell Estell III, Martin Hernandez, Mayank Keshaviah, Deobrah Klugman, Steven Leigh Morris, Amy Nicholson, Tom Provenzano, Bill Raden, Luis Reyes, Sandra Ross and Neal Weaver. These listings were compiled by Derek Thomas

OPENING THIS WEEK

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Starring John Goodman, Jane Leeves, Jane Seymour, Christopher Lloyd and Gene Wilder. KODAK THEATRE, Hollywood Blvd. & Highland Ave., L.A.; Mon., Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m.; Tues., Dec. 23, 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Dec. 24, 3 p.m.; Dec. 26-27, 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 28, 3 p.m.; Tues., Dec. 30, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 31-Jan. 1, 3 p.m.; Fri., Jan. 2, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Jan. 3, 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 4, 3 p.m.. (213) 480-3232.

GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE Hershey Felder channels the composer. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; opens Dec. 19; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; Mon., 7:30 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; thru Jan. 11. (310) 208-5454.

IT'S A FABULOUS LIFE! As told in story and song by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; Sat., Dec. 20, 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 21, 3 p.m.. (323) 467-9741.

CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN LARGER THEATERS

NEW REVIEW THEATER PICK BABES IN TOYLAND While visions of nutcrackers and victorian misers dance through the Yuletide entertainment listings, this production offers a delightful alternative. Forty kids, age 9 to 19 romp through Alice Hammerstein-Mathias and William Mount-Burke's contemporary version of Victor Herbert's this is no kiddie pageant designed for parents to gush at their children on stage; rather, it is a polished exhibit of remarkable young performers. Director-choreographer Devon Yates, founder of Theatre 360 (a serious training ground for young performers), demands precision, timing and stage presence from her charges. Musical director Ryan Cantwell and his small orchestra provide excellent accompaniment. Highly impressive are some of the older students, particularly Samuel Lopez, who impresses with his bizarre physicality and fine vocal work as the play's Snideley villain, Pinkerton. Perhaps the finest moments comes with a pair of brand new "toys" in the shape of ballet dancers Alex Hurren and Maxine Hillman, whose pas de deux give hope to the future of American dance. Scores of costumes are meticulously created by Erin Augustine, keeping the production values as strong as those afforded by host Pasadena Playhouse's lighting and sound. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.; Thurs.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 6 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (626) 356-7529. Theatre 360 and the Pasadena Playhouse (Tom Provenzano)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL By Charles Dickens, adapted by Jerry Patch. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Sun., 12 & 4 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 27. (714) 708-5555.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein. Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, Manhattan Beach & N. Redondo Beach blvds., Manhattan Beach; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (310) 372-4477.

IT'S A PRETTY GOOD LIFE This scattershot and offbeat musical revisiting of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (book credited to Kathleen Cramer, music to J. Raoul Brody, from a story by Cramer, O-Lan Jones, and Andrea Stein) is an idiosyncratic concoction with a few Christmas themes attached. On X-mas Eve, three eccentric, angelic ladies (Jones, Molly Bryant, and Martha Gehman) descend on a theater to present a slapdash production of Dickens' famous story of Scrooge. The so-called "Three Wise Babes" have no props, costumes, or actors, and their previous theatrical attempt -- a rap production of "The History of Women's Rights," set to saxophone -- mortally offended their audience. Nevertheless, the women hold some hasty auditions and are pleased when the perfect Scrooge -- wheelchair bound, paraplegic physics genius Stephen "Hawkings" (John Fleck) -- careens into the theater, accompanied by his sexy nurse (Ali Tobia). Director Tony Abatemarco's energetic but occasionally undisciplined staging boasts some impressively creative and comically charged acting, but ultimately in the misbegotten service of a random and incoherent text. Cramer's gags frequently don't make sense, while Brody's darkly philosophical songs belong in some other musical. The muddy wind-tunnel acoustics of the Miles Playhouse play havoc with David O's sprightly musical direction -- many of the lyrics are overpowered by the piano. Still, Jones is always a marvel in whatever show she's in, and here she dazzles as the boisterously witchy "wise babe" who takes on the show-within-a-show's directorial chores. And Fleck's magical transformation from paraplegic to repellant Scrooge is a magnificently bug-eyed turn. (PB) Miles Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd, Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 21. (323) 655-2410. Overtone Industries.

IT'S A STEVIE WONDERFUL LIFE The Troubadour Theater Company sets Frank Capra's classic to the music of Stevie Wonder. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 & 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 4. (818) 955-8101.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Ted Neeley reprises his starring role from the 1973 film in this production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Through Dec. 19, 8 p.m.; Sat., Dec. 20, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 21, 1 & 6:30 p.m.. (213) 365-3500.

GO THE JOY LUCK CLUB The quartet of mothers from Feudal China and their American daughters form the heart of Amy Tan's novel, and her screenplay for Wayne Wang's 1993 film. Susan Kim's stage adaptation, which premiered in New York in 1999, presents an inordinate challenge to any director: keeping the four story threads and their spiraling flashbacks, anchored in 1980s San Francisco, from fraying in the morass of Tan's epic landscape. Jon Lawrence Rivera's staging tackles that challenge head on with the use of John H. Binkley's elegant set and projections that have duel purposes: A kind of suspended parchment scroll unfurls to form the stage floor to unite the whirlwind stories; furthermore, projected titles offer clear chapter headings and the names of characters being "framed," in order to sustain some clarity of focus. The result of Rivera's noble effort is a kind of duel between dramatic unity and the sprawling essence of Kim's adaptation (and Tan's novel.) King Lear, which hangs on the sagas of three daughters and their hubristic father, has a similar theatrical swirl, but imagine adding a fourth daughter, and all their mothers. Rivera gets an array of lovely performances, with particularly striking turns from Celeste Den, Karen Huie and Emily Kuroda. Also Rivera's use of live music adds atmosphere that mostly enhances but occasionally suffocates the tender scenes being played out. (SLM) David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (213) 625-7000 or http://www.eastwestplayers.com. An East West Players production.

LA POSADA MAGICA (THE MAGICAL JOURNEY) By Octavio Solis, with music by Marcos Loya, based on the traditional Latin American Christmas procession. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; thru Dec. 23. (714) 708-5555.

THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED As Gertrude Stein once put it (but not about this play), "It's almost about something, and then it's just not." Douglas Carter Beane's comedy brings with it the New York cast that put the play on the map, and secured Julie White a Tony for her role as a Hollywood actors' agent who fires off scathing retorts with contrapuntal animation and a shit-eating grin. But is it really worth the trouble spending two-plus hours in the theater waiting for said actor (Brian Henderson) and the street hustler (Johnny Galecki) he regularly employs to figure out whether or not they're really gay, and whether or not they're really capable of love. If Mitchell (Henderson) comes out of the closet, there goes his career, 'cause a straight guy playing gay is "noble," whereas a gay guy playing gay is just "boasting." It's a play that probes the obvious and discovers almost nothing amidst some sweet repartee, and a quartet of performances (Zoe Lister-Jones plays the hustler's sardonic girlfriend) that are convincing enough to add the illusion of substance. One brilliant scene in which the actor and the agent interview an offstage playwright for the film rights to the scribe's openly gay opus snares the Industry's layers of deception with contemptuous delight. It's the one scene to which the entire comedy is tethered, philosophically and dramaturgically. As funny as it is, it too pokes at truths so evident, there's no actual discovery. (Gosh, they lie in Hollywood!) When the play isn't ripping at such generic truths, it goes after things that just aren't true. The agent makes a quip about how L.A. has solved the problems of cellphones in the theater by not doing theater. "Choices were made." Big laugh. At what? A myth about L.A. that's so false, they don't even believe it in New York anymore. The difference between Beane and Oscar Wilde is that Wilde poked at hypocrisies that were assumed and barely discussed, thereby ripping open some fabric of the culture. Beane tears at threads that are clearly frayed, and that's just like a kid firing spitwads from the back of the class just to prove he can do it. Scott Ellis' direction is meticulously timed, though the technique used widely across regional theaters of having movable set pieces slip into place with the sound effect of a whoosh, or a reverberating slam - as though lifted from an ancient episode of The Matrix -- is fundamentally anti-theatrical and wearisome to those who believe that the possibilities of live theater can rise higher than such cheesy sound effects, and the gaps they're trying to fill. (SLM) Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (213) 628-2772. A Center Theatre Group production.

GO MY TRIP DOWN THE PINK CARPET If a zest for life is infectious, there's probably no more delightful a carrier than Leslie Jordan. A diminutive stage, film, Emmy Award-winning TV actor, and fugitive from the Bible Belt, Jordan regales us with anecdotes illuminating his inner journey from abashed homosexual and showbiz neophyte to triumphant Hollywood insider and the self-proclaimed "gayest man I know." Relayed in no particular order, and in an unapologetic Chattanooga drawl, Jordan's stories encompass his childhood and adolescence: as a toddler craving a bride doll after attending a wedding, his infatuation with the high school quarterback, foiled (no surprise here) by the cheerleader with the perky breasts, the trepidation of his first visit to a gay bar. Other stories are plucked from his colorful career as a performer, as when his mad crush on Mark Harmon during a film shoot left him speechless in take after take, or when mischievous George Clooney conspired with a costumer to let out his pants, or when Beverly D'Angelo dispatched him to Victoria's Secret to buy her some panties. At the core of his tale is the struggle and eventual overcoming of alcohol and drug addiction and his ultimate confrontation with the seminal fears that brought them on. While Jordan's themes are familiar, his charm, his energy, his impeccable timing and above all his warmth make this a one-of-a-kind show. (DK) David Galligan directs. L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 860-7300.

A RUBICON FAMILY CHRISTMAS A musical Christmas extravaganza, conceived by Brian McDonald. Rubicon Theater, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 28. (805) 667-2900.

SISTER'S CHRISTMAS CATECHISM Maripat Donovan's nun searches for the Maji gold. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; Mon.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 24. (949) 497-2787.

>NEW REVIEW SMOKEY JOE'S CAFE serves up a musical theatrical experience akin to mac 'n cheese: warm and agreeable but not enriching. On Broadway, this musical revue of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller classics like "Yakety Yak," "Poison Ivy," and "Jailhouse Rock" -- thickened with other doo wop hits like "Fools Fall in Love" and "Dance With Me" -- ran for 2,036 performances, no small feat for a jukebox musical. Here, director Jeffrey Polk continues in the tradition of assembling nine very different singers and 39 songs about love into a show that avoids even a faint narrative thread. The effect is capable, but constrained. Musical director Darryl Archibald has hammered most of the numbers into a template: They start normal, maybe even a little hushed, then burst into loud, to-the-rafters blues rock. Paradoxically, the reason the second act holds together better than the first is because the four female singers are finally allowed to distinguish their own personalities. Dionne Figgins is a steely sex kitten, DeLee Lively, a burlesque sprite; Sharon Catherine Blank is soulful and warm, and Jackie Seiden in "Pearl's a Singer" reveals that she's a throaty country diva -- it's one of the evening's best moments before, like all the others, she's pressed to go as big and obvious as an American Idol contestant. Male singers Niles River, Robert Torti, Maceo Oliver, T.C. Carson, and deep bass John Woodward III are also quite fine in this inessential show that measures success by the number of people clapping along to "Stand By Me." El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 4. (818) 508-0281. (Amy Nicholson)

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Smokey Joe's Cafe Photo by Ed Krieger

GO WICKED In this musical riff on the witches of Oz (by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Hollzman), Joe Mantello directs a marvelous spectacle that looks like a diversion but is actually quite the opposite. Eden Espinoza as the green-skinned, bespectacled girl-witch Elphaba has a contagiously smart appeal. After recognizing that Elphaba's not going to power-play along with the Wizard's (John Rubinstein) Stalinist shenanigans, Mrs. Morrible (the delightful Carol Kane), starts a witch hunt for the girl, and the whole thing starts to resemble some of the tawdrier chapters in American history. (SLM). Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Jan. 11. (213) 365-3500.

XANADU Roller-disco musical based on the 1980 film, book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 31. (858) 550-1010.

CONTINUING PERFORMANCESIN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED IN HOLLYWOOD, WEST HOLLYWOOD AND THE DOWNTOWN AREAS

ARROZ CON POLLO The titular Puerto Rican dish becomes the central metaphor for human and humane relationships in Edward H. Hernandez's tightly drawn, extremely literate, but unfinished morality tale. Brian Turley convincingly portrays Nathan, a Midwestern MBA hatchet man, brought to New York by a powerful corporation to oversee a tsunami of layoffs. Rafael Robles smoothly embodies Victor, the company's wise and enigmatically spiritual custodian, who offers a perfect foil to Nathan's worldly indifference. But it is Victor's lovely daughter,Angela (an earnest if overplayed performance by Andrea Munoz) and her Tupperware dish of arroz con pollo that lures Nathan's innate decency out from behind his calloused heart. The ultimate goodness of the trio is sorely tested by the cold-blooded greed of the CEO's daughter, Emily (played with apt chilliness by Katherine Leilani McDowell). Mary Jo DuPrey directs the fine cast with an intensity that matches the density of the text, but it is the very skill of the company that reveals the ultimate weakness of the play. This is a rare example of a playwright who needs to add more: In its current 70 minute incarnation, the characters and plot are revealed too quickly with so little development, there are few surprises besides a rather unconvincing melodramatic finale. The moral is spun by the Zen like Victor in the first few moments, and the rest is quick and interesting, but it's not a particularly suspenseful flight towards an outcome that's evident almost from the start. (TP) Ruby Theatre at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun 7 p.m.; through Dec 21. (323)-960-7863 or www.plays411.com/arrozconpollo

BABY IT'S YOU! Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux's musical about the discovery of girl group the Shirelles. Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; Sun., 3 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (800) 595-4849.

BILL W. AND DR. BOB The story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey. Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-7827.

BOB'S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY Finhead Insurance Agency's annual bash, by Joe Keyes and Rob Elk. Zephyr Theater, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-7735.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL WITH CHARLES DICKENS Re-creation of a public reading of Dickens' tale, by the Independent Shakespeare Company. Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 836-0287.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL The Dickens classic, set in the fashionista world, by Jason Moyer. Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 957-1884.

THE DADDY MACHINE Family musical-comedy by Patricia Loughrey and Rayme Sciaroni. Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 10:30 a.m. & 1 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 957-1884.

DADDY'S DYIN' WHO'S GOT THE WILL More than 20 years after its Los Angeles debut, Del Shores' comedy about a dysfunctional family in 1986 Texas is still good for laughs. Director Jeff Murray has here substituted the "white trash" clan with an African-American cast. Family patriarch Buford Turnover (Sy Richardson) has one foot in the grave, and his children can't wait to get their hands on his will. Sara Lee (Regan Carrington) is a luckless-in-love spinster who dutifully tends to the old man. Her sister Lurlene (Michele Harrell) is a religious zealot, while Evalita (Taji Coleman), a trampy, six time divorcee, shows up with a pot smoking, long-haired "hippie" (Matt Skaja). Orville (Hardia Madden), is the sole male heir with a ton of emotional baggage, who constantly berates his overweight wife (Pam Trotter). Then there's the spirited elder Mama Willis (Baadja-Lynne), whose sharp tongue and iron will keeps the brood in line. For most of the evening, it's funny watching this caustic mix of vipers playing head games and sniping at each other. Shores dialogue is blisteringly caustic and funny, but sometimes these qualities don't emerge forcefully enough under Murray's understated direction. The production is double cast. (LE3) Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. LA.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 954-9795.

GO EAT THE RUNT What a discomfiting feeling it is to be reviewing a play in a theater with only two other people behind me (this play deserves an audience) - a play about a theater critic (Peter Leake) named The Man (a name that serves up far more credit than is deserved) who is kidnapped and brutalized for his scathing review in The Fresno Bee of a new work by a blowhard playwright named Buck Lone (Robert Riechel, Jr., who did actually write this play). Mr. Lone may or may not have used a gun in the apprehension of the drama critic from his bed (he shows up in pajamas, blindfolded and gagged). We first see him dragged into Lone's grubby basement apartment (set by Adam Haas Hunter), punctuated by a poster of Samuel Beckett, who provides the scribe his dark inspiration. The Man is a smart, bitter fellow, an obit writer who takes occasional assignments as the paper's drama critic. (The night before seeing this play, I heard a local arts critic in a theater lobby seething that his paper was now asking him to write obits - so, beyond the obvious metaphor for critics penning last rites, this is art imitating something real that's going on.) Lone's over-sexed, sadistic girlfriend, Hammer (Victoria Engelmaer) provides the third link of a triangle that spins almost off the stage in Riechel's hostage drama, because both the rudely portrayed Hammer (a smart, willing "slut") and Lone's self-evident insanity give long-suffering drama critics a power that exists only in the long-suffering hearts of self-absorbed playwrights, who simply haven't caught on yet that critics don't make much difference. (That's among the reasons their ranks across the nation are diminishing so quickly.) But Riechel hasn't tried to write a play so much about the dire state of the arts as a comedy about the brooding imaginings of one deranged artist, and how any creation can be fairly assessed beyond the narcissism of the creator and the cruelty of the judge. (Leake brings an impassioned credibility to his deep conviction that the world would be a better place if only Lone would stops writing plays.) Riechel has pulled off the rare feat of directing and acting in his own play without running it off the rails. His performance is a terrifying portrait of the walking wounded, with little but vengeance for the critic, and visions in his head of his play starring John Malkovich and being performed by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. (SLM) Hudson Guild Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 13. (323) 960-7721. Living Edge Theaterworks and Red Bark Corp.

THE EIGHT: REINDEER MONOLOGUES Santa's pack kvetches in Jeff Goode's play. Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., L.A.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 336-3582.

GEM OF THE OCEAN August Wilson's ten-play chronicle of the 20th century African-American experience is one of the great achievements in dramatic literature. Gem of the Ocean, the first play in the cycle, is probably the playwright's most symbolic and provocative. The setting is 1904, Pittsburgh, a time when many blacks were no better off than they were during chattel slavery. But the home of 287 year old Aunt Ester (alternate Carlease Burke), is a place of rest, refuge and mystery for a colorful group of residents and regulars. Eli (Jeris Lee Poindexter) is a boarder/handyman with an angel's heart; Black Mary(Tené Carter Miller) is a long-suffering maid and washerwoman; and her brother Cesar (Rocky Gardiner), a badge-heavy cop with a Napoleon Complex whose primary function is to control the "colored" people of the city. Then there's the rabble-rousing, garrulous Solly Two Kings (a star turn by Adolphus Ward), a former Union scout who helped runaway slaves. When a troubled stranger, Citizen Barlow(Keith Arthur Bolden), steals into the house seeking Ester's magical soul-cleansing powers, it sets off a chain of events that forever alters the lives of all those involved. Gem is a play where grand themes like the connection between past and present, the nature of freedom and spiritual redemption are explored, but you don't get that sense here, at least not in a dynamic fashion. With the exception of Ward, the performances lack the necessary polish and emotional resonance Director Ben Bradley who did brilliant work in Fountain's production of Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is not at his best here, as the pacing at times is far from crisp - though I did see it late in the run. Rounding out the cast is Stephen Marshall. (LE3)The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 16. (323)-663-1525.

GO A GRAND GUIGNOL CHILDREN'S SHOW "Not for children" says the program's subhead -- and they're not kidding. Tapping the same root used by Shockheaded Peter, writer-director Debbie McMahon takes the scariest fairy tales in the world, and draws both their violence and latent eroticism through a vivacious and rude entertainment that's part-French vaudeville and part-British Punch and Judy puppet show. Not meaning to be overly literal, but there was some vagueness as to the era: The production is framed as a touring show, circa 1930, while, at the same time, being a birthday party for Monsieur Guignol, who turns 200 this year. So Puppets Punch and Guignol perch in their wooden booth looking down on their human replicas, as four fairy tales are played with song and dance, with Chris Bell's set (sheet backdrops, mostly) and puppets, Jeanne Simpson's charmingly goofy choreography and Matt Richter's deliberately rambling lighting design. "Little Red Riding Hood" is a cross between a snuff tale and pedophile's wet dream, as Ms. Hood (Hannah Chodos) removes her red bonnet (revealing pigtails, of course) before stripping down for the Wolf (Gary Karp), languishing in the bed of Grandma (Vanessa Forster), whom he's just eaten. (There may have been a reference to her being eaten out; at least that joke was made about somebody.) The ensuing carnage shows poor Little Red with an alarmed facial expression, as her bloodied intestines are strewn from her midsection around the stage. "The Ugly Ducking" is a lovely and considerably more benign costume parade about family and tribes. "Rapunzel" is an R-rated production with finger puppets, while "Hansel and Gretel" turns into an impressively disturbing saga of cannibalism, coming from the same country that put a millions of people into ovens. Though the sophomoric Punch/Guignol repartee grows tiring, and the dramatic beats within the fairy tales need paring, there's no denying how the lurid morbidity of the event sneaks up on you. And when the witch, opening her oven, tells Hansel and Gretel, "You thought the famine hasn't come to my house!" the tingles up the spine run hot and cold. (SLM) Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m. (added perf Dec. 18; no perfs Dec. 26 & Jan. 1); through January 10. (323) 871-1912 or www.brownpapertickets.com.

GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW Sketch and improv, directed by Deanna Oliver. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; thru Jan. 31, (No perfs Dec. 26-28.). (323) 934-9700.

JANE AUSTEN UNSCRIPTED Austen-esque tales, improv'd anew each night. Theatre Asylum, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-7753.

GO JOE'S GARAGE Joe (Jason Paige) wants to play music. But after a neighbor (Maia Madison) files a noise complaint with the cops on his garage band, Joe and his girl Mary (Becky Wahlstrom) fall prey to a domino chain of gang rape, venereal disease, wet t-shirt contests, prison time, cyborg threesomes, and madness. What's to blame? "Music," hisses the Central Scrutinizer (Michael Dunn), a robot narrator dangling from the rafters -- certainly not the religious and government figures who sure seem to be pulling the strings. Like novelist Terry Southern, Frank Zappa's weapon against hypocrisy was to confront audiences with a circus mirror of their culture's greed and lust. Some saw their reflection; others argued Zappa was warped. Pat Towne and Michael Franco's world premiere staging of Zappa's narrative album crackles with outrage and grief masked by a leer --- Jennifer Lettelleir choreographs plenty of sex, but like Robert Crumb's comics, it's more repellent than titillating. Musical director Ross Wright and the seven piece band help the snappy ensemble animize Zappa's eclectic sound which ranges from dissonant juggernauts to deceptively sweet ditties. Per Zappa's request, the song "Watermelon in Easter Hay" plays once his hapless everyman has succumbed to creative censorship; the band puts down their instruments, turns off the lights, and cues Zappa's original version. In that isolating darkness, Zappa's limber guitar feels like a lifeline -- we're struck by our need for music, and our need for today's apolitical musicians to break loose and write the next chorus. (AN) Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 22. (323) 882-6912,

KEN ROHT'S 99¢ ONLY CALENDAR GIRL COMPETITION Now in its sixth year, director-choreographer Ken Roht's 99 Cents Only theater is beginning to look like a one trick pony. As in past years, the trick is to limit his costume (Ann Closs-Farley) and set (Jason Adams) designers to use only what they can scrounge from the titular discount chain for Roht's decidedly silly burlesques of Radio City-style, holiday musical spectaculars. It's a funny gag ― thanks mainly to the wit and ingenuity of Closs-Farley, whose show-stealing creations dress this year's ostensible lampoon of beauty pageants in the highest of camp. It almost makes one overlook Roht's failure to gird his polished production numbers with the narrative spine of a coherent book. Instead, he and co-composer John Ballinger are content to let their parody coast on their pastiche of Godspell-vintage, R&B showtunes and the bare structural framework of the pageant form itself. And while their clever lyrics often connect, the lack of a story arc or character through-lines means the evening never amounts to more than a concert of disconnected ― and increasingly monotonous ― musical sketches. If storytelling isn't Roht's forte, however, he once again proves his genius at talent recruitment. This year's 28-strong, pitch-perfect company generates enough singing and dancing power to light up an entire Broadway season. (BR) Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (213) 389-3856.

KIDNAPPED BY CRAIGSLIST Katie Goan and Nitra Gutierrez's romp of comedy sketches derived from Craigslist postings offers a facile glimpse at our cultural oddities. In New York, it was performed with four actors, but here, with the looser guidelines of the actors' union, Actors' Equity, director Lori Evans Taylor has hired 11 comedians for a what's designed as a kind of Victorian carnival with hints of the electronic age. Matt Maenpaa's opulent set features a velvet red curtain, a precariously dangling chandelier and wooden crates and closets, through which the actors appear and retreat, as though we're in something between an attic and the backstage area of Barnum and Bailey's tent. Marina Mouhibian's georgeous vaudevillian costumes bring vivid texture to this circus of inter-personal desperation, perversity, fury and embarrassment. One scene is dedicated to an apology by a woman (Shelby Kyle) for passing wind, loudly, during a date and, again, while having sex. Amy Motta is all flash and tinsel as the carny barker guiding us through the network of misunderstandings and missed connections, such as her sweetly rendered ballad requesting her new boyfriend to lay off the sodomy, and the faux-indignance of a gay man (Eric Bunton) having to endure the sight of a teenage man lolling around nude near his bedroom window in the stifling heat. These are highlights, but Taylor pushes the jokes too hard, beyond the range of their own humor, revealing the superficial essence of the project, like a less than enthralling episode of Saturday Night Live. (SLM) Elephant Lab Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (added perfs Dec. 6 & 13, 10 p.m.; Dec. 18, 8 p.m.); through Dec. 20. (323) 860-8786. Produced by TheSpyAnts.

GO KILLING GAME Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco's little known play seems a logical, and theological, extension of his more famous, politically charged Rhinoceros, about the steady conversion of a rural town's population into pachyderms (standins for the Nazis); here, the setting is an "idyllic city," where a seemingly passé gathering of people on a street turns bizarre when, one by one, they all drop dead, including two infants in a stroller. Soon after, the citizens are told that a mysterious plague has broken out and that the city is to be quarantined, after which all hell breaks loose. We witness scenes of panic, rabid paranoia, murder by gunshots, and lots of dying, in which the populace reacts much like a horde of lab rats. The grim mis en scene is not without its funnier side, such as when two convicts attempting an escape from jail are given the keys to their freedom by the jailer, but they refuse to leave; or a gathering of snooty uptowners whose serene sense of propertied safety is shattered when death comes calling. Ultimately, the playwright is not really concerned with death, but with what happens when mass fear and irrationality seep in and infect the community. Every actor in director Chris Covics' white clad, nameless ensemble dies at least once, which makes the proceedings, after a time, rather predictable. But the monotony isn't seriously contagious and is offset by many lthought-provoking, lighter moments. (LE3) Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 466-7781.

LATINOLOGUES TU Rick Najera's comedy showcase. Hayworth Theater, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 10 p.m.; thru Dec. 27. (213) 289-9860.

NEW REVIEW GO THE LIFE You can hear the jazzy, gospel-laced echoes of Chicago and Cabaret in Cy Coleman's score for The Life (book and lyrics also by David Newman and Ira Gasman), being given its L.A. premiere. Joe Greene directs a buffed production (with an excellent onstage band) that features some great voices that occasionally slip out of key. Paul Romero's flashy, Fosse-like choreography has the 18-member ensemble swaying and twitching like an organism. Stella Adler Theater, 6773 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood; Tues.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 21. http://jaxxtheatricals.com A Jaxx Theatricals production (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater Feature, to be posted on Wednesday.

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The Life Photo by Luther Orrick

GO LOUIS AND KEELY LIVE AT THE SAHARA You can find several clips of singer-partners Louis Prima and Keely Smith, with a small jazz combo behind them, on YouTube. The pair practically invented the genre of the lounge act, playing as they did during much of the 1950s at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, lingering on the margins of fame. Think of them as antecedents to Sonny and Cher, or a musical version of Abbott and Costello. Smith was the "straight-man" woman and long-suffering wife of the hyperactive, philandering Prima, whom you'll see hopping in front of the bandstand like a maniac, throwing his entire body into each beat, a grin plastered across his face, the biggest ham since Hamlet. Keep these tiny-screen presences in mind when you see Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder's sublime new musical about the duo and their tempestuous life on and off stage, Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara.Certainly not the first musical to chronicle a musical group -- other recent entries include Pump Boys and Dinettes and Jersey Boys -- this has to be the first one to take a lounge act seriously, rather than as a spittoon for gobs of ridicule. In a glorious world-premiere production directed by Jeremy Aldridge for Hollywood's Sacred Fools Theater Company, Prima and Smith are re-created with accuracy and richness -- perhaps because the writers are also the leading players. Vanessa Claire Smith's cropped brunette 'do apes that of Keely Smith's, a look that Liza Minnelli adopted later -- though the silky, tender singing style of both Smiths couldn't be more contrary to Minnelli's comparatively ostentatious, belting interpretations. Prima had a more gruff sound than that depicted by Broder, whose sculpted, jazzy tones more closely resemble Bobby Darin's. What Broder delivers in thunderbolts, though, is Prima's exuberant, maniacal self-choreography -- leaping, lurching, swaying and sashaying. Why this guy is jumping around so much becomes the musical's central question. The answer to that question could come with dismissing Prima as a narcissistic clown, The creators, however, treat their subject with far more compassion than that, as Prima's plight approaches tragedy. (Broder played Mozart in the Broadway production of Amadeus, which provides a small window onto the vainglorious hysteria that Broder depicts here so brilliantly.) He croons in musical styles from '20s Dixieland jazz through '30s swing, '40s big band and '50s scat -- and their accompanying lingo ("cats," "chicks" and "gigs"). Broder's song-and-dance routine, capturing Prima's cocky romantic domination over Smith, as well as his solipsistic devotion to his music, is a bravura performance not to be missed. And having an onstage, seven-piece backup band (doubling as supporting players) doubles the impact, particularly with sounds so carefully modulated by musical director Dennis Kaye. A piano, two saxophones, a string bass, drum set, a trumpet and trombone, all on the stage of this 99-seat theater, places us in the equivalent of a small recording studio. When the band hits its stride with enveloping riffs of Dixieland blues and Big Band stylings, hang on to your seat. The musical current is that strong. This journey through Prima's life comes on the eve of his death in 1978. (Smith is still alive and thriving.) Though it sweeps in biographical details from the '20s -- his "craziness," he says, captured hearts during the Great Depression -- the story kicks into gear during the late '40s with its AStar is Born plot featuring Smith as the ingenue who saves Prima's foundering big-band act and resurrects it with a '50s spin in Las Vegas. And though he's doing all the jumping and prancing, and giving all the orders, the newspaper reviews focus on her talents, not his. Prima's jealousy erupts, not so much in offstage screaming matches (he barely speaks to her) but in the tensions that escalate on the stage, which everyone can see, and which perversely renders their act more popular. He actually encourages the onstage hostility, for just that reason. And so, through 16 songs (ranging from "Basin Street Blues," "That Old Black Magic,"and "I've Got You Under My Skin" to the song that defined Prima's career, the medley of "Just a Gigolo" and "I Ain't Got Nobody") one passionate love and cruel marriage is played out almost entirely between the lines. If the purpose of musical theater is to express in song what can't be expressed in mere words, this is about as perfect as a musical can get. It's simple without being simplistic, summing up 80 years of gender relations in 90 minutes. Yet this is not just a musical about men and women but about life, and art as an expression of it; the devastating costs of recklessly turning a private life into a public one; and that old, blinding obsession with fame. Smith's desperate words accompany her tortured decision to leave her husband, "Life is happening right in your face and you don't even notice. You don't hear anything unless it's in the key of B flat!" I walked out of the theater wrenched by a depth of emotion that seemed to make no sense, coming from a musical about the quaint saga of an almost forgotten lounge act. That's when I realized I'd been punched in the gut and didn't even know it. It was a delayed reaction to the blow landed in Broder's reprise of "I Ain't Got Nobody." He just kept on singing that refrain, as the band packed up and left him there, until his death bed slowly rolled in. What may first look like a musical comedy is actually a musical tragedy, ancient Greek style: the deluded protagonist who's undone by hubris and sent into exile.Exile was a bad end for Oedipus, but imagine if Oedipus' delusions included eternal celebrity from a Las Vegas lounge act. The program cover contains the slogan, "Nothing lasts forever." I hope this show does. (SLM) Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru December. (800) 838-3006, www.louiskeelyshow.com. Note: This production has changed venue since this review.

GO LOVELACE: A ROCK OPERA Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, wrote four autobiographies that muddled, not clarified, her unusual life. In the first two, she was a nympho; the second two, a victim. In all, however, her husband Chuck Traynor (here, played biliously by Jimmy Swan) is clearly a sleaze who lured her into prostitution. Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey's dark and haunting musical is anti-pimp, not anti-porn, even though the two are inextricably linked. Ken Sawyer's well-staged production is fated to descend into hellish reds and writhing bodies, yet it's shot through with beauty and sometimes even hope. As Linda, Katrina Lenk is sensational -- she has a dozen nuanced smiles that range from innocent to shattered to grateful, in order to express whatever passes as kindness when, say, a male co-star (Josh Greene) promises to make their scene fun. Waronker and Caffey were members of two major girl bands, That Dog and The Go-Go's respectively, and their music -- with its keyboards, cellos, and thrumming guitars -- has a pop catchiness that works even with the bleakest lyrics, some originally written by Jeffery Leonard Bowman. Though the facts of Linda's past went with her and Chuck to the grave (both died within months of each other in 2002), there's strong evidence that her life was even worse than the musical's ending suggests, but it's cathartic to watch her stand strong and sing of her hard-fought independence before flashing lights that, in ironic defiance of the play's title, beam out her real name: Linda Boreman. (AN) Hayworth Theater, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 960-4442, www.plays411.com.

THE MAGIC STRING Egomaniacal would-be writer Cody is more inclined to harangues than normal conversation. His therapist tells him his blockage is due to selfishness, and urges him to live for others. He obediently complies by adopting an obsessive-compulsive carpet-sweeper salesman addicted to marathon apologies. After too many jumpy scenes about Cody<0x2019>s literary constipation, playwright/director Nicole Hoelle engineers an arbitrary happy ending. (NW). Mount Hollywood Congregational Church, 4607 Prospect Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.. (323) 663-6577.

A MULHOLLAND CHRISTMAS CAROL Bill Robens' musical Dickens satire. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 19, 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (310) 281-8337.

... OF ALL PLACES The 2008 "Freeway Series" of original one-acts. Write Act Theater, 6128 Yucca St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 469-3113.

GO POINT BREAK LIVE! Jaime Keeling's merciless skewering of the 1991 hyper-action flick starring Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey is loaded with laughs as well as surprises, like picking an audience member to play Reeve's role of Special Agent Johnny Utah. It's damn good fun, cleverly staged by directors Eve Hars, Thomas Blake and George Spielvogel. (LE3). Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.. (866) 811-4111.

SERIAL KILLERS Late-night serialized stories, voted on by the audience to determine which ones continue. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Sat., 11 p.m.. (310) 281-8337.

TILTED FRAME Multimedia improv comedy, directed by Patrick Bristow and Matthew Quinn. Theatre Asylum, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., 8:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (323) 960-7753.

THE TOMORROW SHOW Late-night variety show created by Craig Anton, Ron Lynch and Brendon Small. Steve Allen Theater, at the Center for Inquiry-West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Sat., midnight. (323) 960-7785.

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SUNDAY All-new sketch and improv by the Sunday Company. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.. (323) 934-9700.

>NEW REVIEW GO WEST SIDE STORY Now more than half a century old, conceiver Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Leonard Bernstein's (music) mainstay of American musical theater explores familiar issues of racism, violence and intolerance that are very much with us today. Set in a 1950s New York neighborhood shared by two rival gangs ― the jets, who are Anglo-Italian, and the Puerto Rican Sharks ― the story centers on the ongoing conflict between the cliques, and the romance between Tony (Clint Carter) and Maria(Laura Darrell), whose love ultimately transcends their gang ties. Musical director Greg Haake and his small orchestra perform splendidly throughout the evening. (The score features familiar songs like "Tonight," "I feel Pretty," and "America." ) Darrell is a first rate songbird, whose talent brings to mind a young Sarah Brightman, while Carter sometimes strains to hit the notes. Director Kenneth Gray-Scolari comes up with a straightforward and nicely handled revival, superbly marshalling his large, talented ensemble on this small stage, aided by Arthur L. Ross's smart, energetic choreography. Rosalie Alvarez's costumes are subtly understated. Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd.; Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2&7 p.m., through Dec. 21. (323) 960-7712 (Lovell Estell III) Produced by Musical Theatre of Los Angeles

THE WOMEN Clare Booth Luce's The Womenis thought of first as an expose of female competition among a pack of well-groomed wildcats who claw until they draw blood, and then out-do each other commiserating. Less remembered is Luce's curious stance against emotional feminism, as betrayed wife and mother Mary (Vanessa Waters) comes to believe that the cause of her divorce wasn't that cheap tramp, Crystal Allen (Stephanie O'Neill), but her own pride. Fempowerment, not femme fatales, wrecks homes. "Love has pride in nothing but its own humility," writes Luce invoking Khalil Gibran, and so the challenge of mounting her play is in scaling its icy peaks and humble lows. Elise Robertson's staging stays in the middle ranges. The 15-woman ensemble is fine; the costumes by O'Neill and Rachel Kanouse are great, as are Robertson's sets. But both the cruelty and the heartbreak are mannered, not meaty. And unlike George Cukor's triumphant film version, the maids, manicurists, and career girls nearly steal the show from under the society dames, though as the fatuous breeder Edith Potter, Emma Messenger is a vicious riot as she flicks her cigarette ashes over her newborn son. (AN) Hayworth Theater, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 20. (323) 960-1054, www.circustheatricals.com.

CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED IN THE VALLEYS

ACTOR UNDER FIRE James Gleason's solo show about performing for front-line combat troops in Vietnam. Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (818) 765-8732.

ASTROGYLDE 2008 Eight new pieces by Zombie Joe's Underground. ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Through Dec. 21, 8:30 p.m.. (818) 202-4120.

A CHICAGO CHRISTMAS CAROL William A. Reilly and Gary Lamb have transplanted Charles Dickens' tale to Upton Sinclair's Chicago in a quasi-Brechtian musical take on the Christmas favorite. There are, of course, slight changes in characterization, such as "Tiny" Tim Cratchit (Malek Hanna) now being a union organizer at Fezziwig's Meats, where his father, Bob (Lamb), is trying to preserve his job in a bad economy (one of many parallels to our current business climate). Instead, the role of the lovable waif goes to a Christina Jessup (Shannon Lamb), who with her mother is made homeless by the unfeeling Scrooge (Michael Vodde) at the outset of the story. The rest of the events unfold in a more familiar Dickensian fashion, while set to Reilly's music. Unfortunately, director-choreographer Tam Warner creates a strange hybrid between Verfremdungseffekt and emotional realism, giving the play a presentational feel that at times resembles a Christmas pageant. Dean Cameron's gritty, versatile set and Caitlin Erin O'Hare's colorful costumes provide visual appeal to the show, and a number of the players have pleasant voices, most notably Tara Brown who plays Scrooge's erstwhile love, Isabella Fezziwig. Despite the feel-good ending, due solely to the happy resolution of Christina's tragedy (and Shannon Lamb's cute looks), the emotional heart of the show is missing, making us wonder if Scrooge's transformation was really the dream. (MK) Crown City Theater, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through December 21. (818) 377-4055.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL STORY Larry Davison reworks Dickens to include traditional holiday songs. Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 21, 7 p.m.; Through Dec. 23, 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (626) 256-3809.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN Ariel Dorfman's political/philosophical melodrama centers on Paulina (Hungarian actress Enci), who was tortured and raped while a prisoner of her country's dictatorship. Now, the dictator has been overthrown, and Paulina's husband, Gerard (Eric Curtis Johnson), is investigating the crimes of the former regime. But when Dr. Robert Miranda (Benton Jennings) comes to their beach house to visit Gerard, Paulina believes he is the sadistic doctor who once tortured her. While Gerard sleeps, she takes the doctor prisoner, binding and gagging him. What follows is a three-way battle: Paulina is intent on extracting a confession from Miranda and wreaking vengeance, while Gerard opposes vigilante justice, urging her to let the democratic process and the forces of law prevail. Miranda seeks only to preserve his life and escape. Enci provides a strong and eloquent performance, but Dorfman's carefully contrived play requires a seamless production to be credible, and director Dado is not entirely successful in providing one. Neither Gerard nor Miranda seems strong enough to be serious contenders against Paulina, and a longish scene played out in near-total darkness produced more giggles than dramatic tension. (NW) Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Sat.. 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., through Dec. 21. A SkyPilot Theatre Production. (800) 838-3006 or www.SkyPilotTheatre.com.

ELOVE - A MUSICAL.COM/EDY This world premiere musical by Wayland Pickard explores an online romance between an older man and woman who are newly single. After a website called "eLove" matches Frank (Lloyd Pedersen) and Carol (Bobbi Stamm), love seems to blossom as they begin chatting online. The opening number "I'm Single" has a catchy tune with some clever lyrics; unfortunately the highlight of the show comes five minutes in. The rest devolves into repetitive and unimaginative quips punctuated by musical numbers that plunge from the pedestrian to something akin to theme songs from '80s sitcoms. Pickard does everything in this production but act; his staging lends it a one-dimensional quality that might have been avoided with greater collaboration. He is so focused on trying to milk puns for laughs that his direction employs hackneyed devices such as talking to pets and monologues delivered out to the audience. Stamm stumbles over one too many lines, though she and Pederson have pleasant voices, but Chris Winfield's cramped set allows them little freedom to physically explore their characters. The piece, in effect, becomes an Ed Sullivan-style stand-up routine with dialogue so trite, it makes George Lucas look like Edward Albee. (MK) NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri., 8 p.m. (Dec. 5-21 only); Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 21. (323) 822-7898. An Angry Amish Production

FAHRENHEIT 451 Ray Bradbury's book burner. Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (323) 960-4451.

>NEW REVIEW GO HOLIDAY FEVER Eight singing-dancing-clowning performers cavort and strut their stuff against a lavish background of silver lamế, snowflakes and glittery blue Christmas trees in this fourth annual rendition of a this holiday show. In a 90-minute show, they cram every (secular) Christmas song you've ever heard, from "I'll Be Home for Christmas" to "Jingle Bell Rock." Rubenesque Missy Doty, in gold sequins, seems to be channeling The Last of the Red Hot Mamas in her rendition of "Santa Baby," and she's a bubbly, bouncy Sugar Plum Fairy. Producer-lyricist Chris Emerson and director-choreographer Dagney Kerr turn "Greensleeves" into a loony mock-medieval romance, while Anthony Marciona cuts loose in several numbers, including a peppy "Feliz Navidad." Emerson and Sean Owens perform an eccentric dance with rolling suitcases to "My Favorite Things," Holly Riddle, as a rejected office drunk, croons a defiant "I Won't Let Sorrow Bring Me Down," and spandex-clad Nathan Lee and Michael C. Palma make up a goofy dance-team. But the high-light of the evening is a hilarious version of A Chorus Line, as performed by eight not-so-tiny reindeer auditioning for Santa Claus. Gary Guidinger's glitzy sets and lighting, and Anna Quirino Miranda's witty costumes, add to the festivity. Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Dec. 20. (323) 960-1052 http://plays411.com/holidayfever. A joint production by Fever Productions and Fire Rose Productions. (Neal Weaver)

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Holiday Fever Photo courtesy of Fever Productions and Fire Rose Productions

INSIDE PRIVATE LIVES provides a platform for audience members to interact with infamous or celebrated personages from the 20th century, as recreated by the ensemble in a series of monologues. The show's efforts to dismantle the fourth wall yield tame results at best. One problem involves timeliness. The night I attended, the lineup (which varies from night to night) included Christine Jorgenson, Billy Carter, David Koresh, Julia Phillips, Elia Kazan and Marge Schott. None of these people are in the limelight today and - with the exception of Kazan -- their public lives, once deemed provocative, no longer seem controversial or even relevant. (How much more volcanic the show might have been had we been able to challenge Karl Rove or Eliot Spitzer, or the current media queen bee, Sarah Palin.). Another drawback is relying on the audience for conflict: Even primed with pre-show champagne, my fellow theater-goers' questions, though earnestly exhorted, induced only scant dramatic dustup. And the monologues themselves , developed collaboratively by creator-producer Kristin Stone, director Michael Cohn and the individual performers, were uneven in quality. Three performances succeeded: Adam LeBow's intense Kazan, Mary McDonald's bitingly comic Schott, and Leonora Gershman, on target as Hollywood bad girl, Julia Phillips. But Stone's flirty Jorgenson, Bryan Safi's sloppily inebriated Carter and David Shofner's non-compelling Koresh all lacked persuasiveness, and some of the too-familiar liberties taken with audience members were just embarrassing. (DK) Fremont Center Theatre, 1000 Fremont Avenue, South Pasadena; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru November. (866) 811-4111.

INSPECTING CAROL Community theater attempts to mount A Christmas Carol, by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 11. (818) 700-4878.

NEW REVIEW GO IT'S JUST SEX Jeff Gould's comedy takes the underpinnings of sexual fantasy, fidelity and money, and puts all those nuances on stage in a contemporary comedy about three married couples. The wife-swapping plot is straight out of Hugh Hefner's pad circa 1975. That the play resonates in 2008, in the ashes of the sexual revolution, is one indication of how little has changed, despite how much has changed. Mark Blanchard directs the sitcom with his own brand of polish, revealing not so much characters as aspects of love and trust that permeate the culture. Meanwhile, the actors infuse those aspects with at least a couple of layers of subtext, humanity, and some very good timing. Two Roads Theatre, 4348 Tujunga Avenue, Toluca Lake; Fri-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Feb. 1. (818) 762-2282. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature, to be posted on Wednesday.

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It's Just Sex Photo courtesy of Two Roads Theatre

NEW REVIEW LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST Shakespeare's comedy of courtship is a romance that ends almost tragically, suggesting an early theatrical cliffhanger, one which might have been resolved in a supposed lost second play, Love's Labour's Found. Director Charles Pasternak's mostly workman-like production boasts an obvious and keenly felt affection for Shakespeare. Yet, we're frequently unable to escape the sense that the performers are having more fun discovering the Bard's work than the audience is having watching it, as Pasternak's staging is lacking in a rigorous understanding of the text's subtleties. In the kingdom of Navarre, young King Ferdinand (Eddie Castuera) dedicates himself to a life of asceticism, convincing his best buddies to join him in a three- year vow of chastity. No sooner is the promise made, a sultry French princess (Samantha Stinger) arrives for a visit, accompanied by her trio of luscious best pals. It's not long before the boys' chastity vows have gone the way of a political campaign promise - off like a prom dress. Meanwhile, daffy visiting Spaniard Armando (Gus Krieger), assisted by his uptight manservant, Moth (Dan Sykes), woos sexy beauty Jaquenetta (Maja Miletich). The show is full of awkward arm-waving, pedestrian line readings, and the loud fake laughing that often suggests actors who are unsure of the play's innate comedy. In the end, the charming Wooster-and-Jeeves-like interplay between Krieger's beautifully goofy Armando and Sykes' prim Moth - and the hilarious play-within-a-play that makes up the comedy's finale-- effectively upstages the show's less successfully realized "main" subplot and saves the day. Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3:30 p.m.; through December 28. (310) 497-2884. A Porters of Hellgate Production. (Paul Birchall)

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS It's a merry Guy Ritchie Christmas for the British louts in Anthony Neilson's dark, uneven holiday comedy. Security guard Gary (Doug Newell) finds a short man in glitter and knickers (K.M. Davies) breaking into his London warehouse. (Christie Wright's set is made of boxes that appear to stretch on endlessly like Citizen Kane's Xanadu.) Bound to a chair, the wee bloke tries to convince Gary and his best mate Simon (Troy Metcalf, a boulder-sized tough) that he's not a burglar, but an elf -- or, more precisely, "an employee in an international gift distribution agency." Neilson bills his real-time hour-length show as a savagery of Yuletide, and sure enough, the tremulous elf is addicted to a white powder he swears is the spirit of Christmas, and for which the thugs promptly try to shake him and Santa down -- even if it ruins Christmas. (Neilson's one truly bleak gag is that the drug is forbidden for raped children.) The entrance of a headstrong local hooker named Cherry (Nina Silver) demanding Power Rangers for handjobs is a needed jolt of energy, as is the elf's bribe of wishes in exchange for freedom. Yet director Robert Pescovitz isn't able to reconcile the sweetness of Neilson's spot-on observations of blue-collar holiday blues with his sour frustration vented at his bottom-feeding characters, who are blind to anything greater than their own materialism and misery; we exit with neither redemption nor catharsis. (AN) Pasadena Playhouse, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Dec. 20. (800) 595-4849. A Furious Theatre Company production.

SANTASIA: A HOLIDAY COMEDY Christmas comedy special, directed by Shaun Loeser. Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 25. (866) 811-4111.

NEW REVIEW SHANGHAI MOON Set in 1931, satirist Charles Busch's politically incorrect farce pokes fun at pre-Hays (censorship) Code movie melodramas from the 1930s. Starring luminaries like Barbara Stanwyck or Marlene Dietrich, these films, which frequently harbored racist undercurrents, told tales involving up-from-their-bootstraps babes who traded sex for wealth and power. Directed by Ken Salzman, this staging features a cross-dressed R. Christofer Sands as Lady Sylvia Allington, a steamy siren who accompanies her husband on a diplomatic mission to Shanghai and becomes embroiled in a pot-boiling affair with a diabolical Chinese general (Christopher Chen). Before play's end, the unfortunate drama queen has become hooked on opium, branded as the general's slave, and put on trial for murder. It's all pure escapism and ably executed, especially by Sands, a seasoned veteran of cross-gendered roles. Also skillfully entertaining are Chen's snide, sneering villain and Minda Grace Ware -- unerringly on target in male drag - as Lady Allington's no-goodnik first spouse. Lively production values - David Calhoun's set, Maro Parian's costumes and SanZman's sound - contribute to the fun. Unfortunately, at 90-plus minutes without intermission, the material's predictably campy humor eventually wears thin, and the tiny theater - with the players and the audience in such close proximity - constrains performances in a piece intended to be played vastly larger than life. Luna Playhouse, 3706 San Fernando Road, Glendale; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through December. 20. (818) 500-7200. (Deborah Klugman)

click to enlarge Shanghai_Moon.jpg

Shanghai Moon Photo by Fritz Salzman

UNDER OUR MISTLETOE: A BURLESQUE CHRISTMAS GALA Above the Curve Theatre hosts a vaudeville-style holiday show. Avery Schreiber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 20. (310) 486-0051.

WITTE'S END Evan Keliher's comedy about a suicidal screenwriter. Riprap Studio Theatre, 5755 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 10, (No perfs Dec. 26-28.). (818) 990-7498.

YO HO HO! A PIRATE'S CHRISTMAS Pirates kidnap Santa Claus, book by James J. Mellon, music and lyrics by Mellon and Scott DeTurk. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 28. (818) 508-7101.

CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED ON THE WESTSIDE AND IN BEACH TOWNS

GO THE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME You'd think, from reading the world press, that racism and, by extension, classism, had suddenly been vanquished from the nation - overnight, by a stunning national election. Such is the power of symbolism and hope. Sooner or later, we will settle into a more realistic view of who we are, and were, and how we have evolved in ways perhaps more subtle than the current "we are the world" emotional gush would lead one to believe. It's in this more self-critical (rather than celebratory) frame of mind that Moliè's 1670 comedy - a satire of snobbery and social climbing - will find its relevance renewed. For now, however, Frederique Michel (who directed the play) and Charles Duncombe's fresh and bawdy translation-adaptation serves up a bouquet of comedic delights that offer the caution that -- though celebrating a milestone on the path of social opportunity is worthy of many tears of joy -- perhaps we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves with self-congratulation. Bourgeois Gentlemanwas first presented the year Tartuffe, and it contains many of the hallmarks of its more famous cousin: a deluded and pompous protagonist (Jeff Atik); a con man (Troy Dunn) aiming for social advancement by speculating on the blind arrogance of his patron; and the imposition of an arranged marriage, by the insane master of the house, for his crest-fallen daughter (Alisha Nichols). The play was originally written as a ballet-farce, for which composer Jean-Baptiste Lully performed in the production before the court of Louis XIV. Michel's visually opulent staging features scenery (designed by Duncombe) that includes a pair of chandeliers, and costumes (by Josephine Poinsot) in shades of red, maroon and black. Michel employs Lully's music in a nod to the original. (The singing is far too thin even to support the jokes about its competence.) Michel also includes a lovely ballet by performers in mesmerizing gtears of a clownh masks, a choreographed prance of the fops, and she has characters bounding and spinning during otherwise realistic conversations, in order to mock style over substance. Comedy has a maximum refrigeration temperature of 75 degrees, and when that temperature was exceeded during Act 1 on the performance I attended, the humor ran off the tracks - despite the broad style being sustained with conviction by the performers. By Act 2, the heat problem had been remedied and the comedy started playing again as it should. In fact, I haven't seen a comic tour de force the likes of Atik's Monseiur Jordain since Alan Bomenfeld's King Ubu at A Noise Within. As Jourdain is trying to woo a countess (the striking Deborah Knox), Atik plays him attired in silks and bows of Ottoman extravagance, with a blissfully stupid expression - every dart of his eyes reveals Jordain's smug self-satisfaction that's embedded with delirious ignorance. (SLM) City Garage, 1340½ (alley) Fourth Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (310) 319-9939.

GO FATA MORGANA Hungarian playwright Ernest Vajda is perhaps best known for the screenplays he wrote for director Ernst Lubitsch (including that for The Merry Widow) but this forgotten gem of a romantic comedy, written in 1915, with a tempestuous young man-meets-older woman love affair at its core, is an engrossing, emotionally nuanced oddity. Innocent teenager George (Michael Hanson), a provincial boy living in his family's isolated chateau in the Hungarian countryside, finds his life turned upside down when his distant cousin's wife, Mathilde (Ursula Brooks), a sultry vixen ten years his senior, arrives from the city for a vacation. In a twist of fate that would not seem out of place in the Hungarian 1915 issue of Penthouse Forum, Mathilde shows up on the doorstep while George's parents just happen to be out for the evening -- and she almost instantly beds the virginal, horny young man. , who afterwards falls in love with her. Complications ensue when Mathilde's pompous lawyer husband (Scott Conte) arrives at the house the next morning. Although Vajda's three act comedy occasionally falls pray to patches of inert dialogue, director Marilyn Fox's psychologically assured production, blessed by Audrey Eisner's gorgeous period costumes, possesses a delicate, melancholy emotional truth. In this fragile relationship. Mathilde, who knows the boy better than he knows himself, adores the idea of living forever in the young man's memory. Performances are deft and multidimensional, particularly Brooks' inscrutable older beauty. (PB) Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (310) 822-8392.

GO MADE ME NUCLEAR On March 1, 2006, singer-songwriter Charlie Lustman was informed by his doctor that he had a rare OsteoSarcoma (bone cancer) of the upper jaw. What followed was a grueling and painful siege of therapies, involving radiation injected into his body, surgery removing three quarters of his jawbone, surgical reconstruction, and extensive chemotherapy. When, after two years of treatment, he was declared cancer free, he created this touching 12-song cycle about his experiences. He sings about the bone-numbing shock and terror of being told he had cancer, his fear of death and sense of helplessness, the solace provided him by his loyal wife, his children and his doctors, memory problems caused by his chemo (mercifully temporary), and so on. But the tone is more celebratory than grim: he's determinedly life-affirming, full of hope and gratitude, and his songs are pitched in an intimate, jazzy, bluesy style. He's an engaging and personable performer (thanks in part to his skillful doctors), who brings rueful humor and mischief to a tale that might have been unrelievedly grim. If anything, tries a bit too hard to keep things light. We need a bit of scarifying detail if we're to appreciate his remarkable resilience and optimism. (NW) Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street, Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., through Dec. 27. (866) 468-3399 or http://www.MadeMeNuclear.com Produced by the Sarcoma Alliance.

A MAN'S A MAN In an army brigade, three machine-gunners are in immediate need of replacing their fourth, who was recently kidanpped. And so, in Bertolt Brecht's furious early play, they lure a docile man named Galy Gay (Beth Hogan) with whiskey, cigars, and women -- and when he dares to refuse to adopt the missing soldier's name and identity, they give him good reason to by stringing up Galy on nonsensical criminal charges. Meanwhile, opportunistic barkeeper Widow Begbick (Diana Cignoni) -- an early vestige of Mother Courage -- and her troupe of traveling prostitutes scheme to undermine a despotic Sergeant (Will Kepper) while packing up their saloon to follow the army from India into Tibet. (Brecht has slyly populated his India with pagodas and Chinese hucksters in yellowface). Director Ron Sossi has an inconsistent approach to Brecht's stylistics, a flaw most visible in the miscast and misdirected Hogan, who starts off blank and guileless, only to blubber like the heroine of a five-hankie weepie during Galy's tribunal. (Such aggressive emotional manipulation would have been parodied by Brecht.) Already smaller and more fragile than the rest of the pert and heartless ensemble, Hogan's stunt casting works best when Galy, now calling himself Jip, ascends to control the destruction of Tibet like a pint-sized General Patton barking out orders. This Brecht piece is given the over-simplified interpretation of exploring how the trauma of war warps soldiers, but with Hogan so clearly at the reins in the battle scenes, what's indicted here is a callow culture that exploits everyone.(AN) Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 21, (Call for added perfs; no perf Nov. 27.) (310) 477-2055.

SCROOGE MUST DIE! The Actors' Gang's X-rated take on Dickens' classic tale gives new meaning to the phrase "a blue Christmas." Writer-director Angela Berliner seems determined to reimagine the novel, using much of the original text, interspersed with rants that are jaundiced, scatological, violent and aggressively sexual. (One riff concerns being raped by a herd of buffalo.) Mr. Scrooge (Scott Harris) murders Marley (Justin Zsebe) and throws his body to the wolves at the door. Old Fezziwig (Pierre Adell) is a capitalist exploiter, and his Christmas party degenerates into an orgy with much pan-sexual simulated sex. Nephew Fred (RJ Jones) is declared to be a homosexual, and his wife (Sabra Williams) a slut. The Cratchit family apparently dines on roast rat rather than roast goose, and the young Cratchits are a rum lot: Peter (Seth Compton) is a gin peddler, Martha (Heather J. Thomas) is a hooker, and Tiny Tim (Elora Dannon) seems more interested in masturbating than asking for blessings. There's no real purpose or point of view, merely a compulsion to debunk everything in sight. There are occasional laughs, but brief as it is (just over an hour), the show quickly grows tiresome. (NW) Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., through Jan. 10; variable schedule; call for info. (310) 838-4254 or www.theactorsgang.com. An Actors' Gang production.

SCRUPLES, SCRUTINY, SCRUFFLEPICKLEWICKLE AND SABOTAGE OR THE NEW AMUSEMENT PARK IN TOWN Melodramatic confabulation, by Jamie Sweet. Garage Theatre, 251 E. Seventh St., Long Beach; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (866) 811-4111.

CONTINUING PERFORMANCES OF SPECIAL THEATER EVENTS

BOB BAKER'S NUTCRACKER The holiday classic, told through the magic of marionettes. (Resv. required.). Bob Baker Marionette Theater, 1345 W. First St., L.A.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 10:30 a.m.; thru Dec. 31. (213) 250-9995.

LET IT HO, HO, HO Original works from the Studio's writers workshop, benefiting Toys for Tots. Actors Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (818) 506-3903.

MAGNUM OPUS THEATRE: WHAT'S LOVE MADE OF, ANYWAY? Reading of yet another awful screenplay. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., L.A.; Fri., 11 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (310) 281-8337.

MYSTERIES EN BROCHETTE The beachside hotel dishes out dinner and mystery delights in its Saturday shows with four different performances that alternate., $75, includes dinner. Marina del Rey Hotel, 13534 Bali Way, Marina del Rey; Sat., 7 p.m.. (310) 301-1000.

WINTER TALES: A CELEBRATION OF HOLIDAY STORIES Stories, poems and songs of the season. Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (818 ) 990-2324.

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