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THEATER REVIEWS: A CHICAGO CHRISTMAS CAROL, EXIT 10, THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT, OUR BEDS ARE CROWDED

EXIT 10

GO A CHICAGO CHRISTMAS CAROL In 1906, Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel The Jungle exposed the appalling and oppressive conditions workers faced in the unsanitary U.S. meatpacking industry, and the furor that followed led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. William A. Reilly has devised a clever merging of this backdrop with Charles Dickens' story A Christmas Carol. With lyrics by Gary Lamb and directed by Brent Beerman, Reilly's musical transplants the familiar yuletide plotline from London to 1908 Chicago, where the stone-hearted, money-grubbing Scrooge (Lamb) is busy raising rents and turning people out on the street. With corrupt cops in his pocket, Scrooge keeps rabble-rousing union workers such as Timothy Cratchit (Mikhail Roberts) under his shoe. When Scrooge is visited by the imposing ghost of his former partner Marley (a seemingly 8-foot-tall Dave Berges, with a nice basso profundo), Scrooge reflects on the decisions of his past and his lost love. The cast of 13 is well-costumed by Tanya Apuya and Caitlin Erin O'Hare, but less well served by the tame choreography and unimaginative, unambitious songs, one of which ("Memories Past") borrows liberally from "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Yet Paton Ashbrook as Scrooge's intended, Isabella, shares a lovely duet with him in "When We Are Wed" and Sadie Calvano shines as the little girl cast out onto the street. Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (818) 745-8527. (Pauline Adamek)

GO EXIT 10 The formula for a classic country song is simple: Hard-livin', hard-lovin' man, born with a rambler's soul and a soft spot for whiskey and women, leaves his long-suffering lady because he knows he's no good for her. Playwright Daniel Dean Darst was a studio music writer in Nashville, so he's built his semi-autobiographical, world-premiere show on that premise. When he steps onstage as Mike, Stetson shadowing his sunglass-shaded eyes, weaving stories in a slow, low voice reminiscent of the voice of God (if God once had a pack-a-day Marlboro habit) and singing songs that blanket the audience in a haze of longing, you lean forward to breathe in every word he sighs out. But when he passes the stage on to the past, and a younger version of himself, it's a rude awakening from the sweet, sad nostalgia he's conjured. As Young Mike, Paul Teodo still has Darst's poetic words to speak, but not his gift of storytelling. Bryan Bellomo, who plays persnickety to perfection (he uses an oil rag to answer the phone in the garage in which the two men work), is more nuanced eating a doughnut in semi-darkness than Teodo is in a monologue venting his frustration to his deceased father. In Act 2, set designers Jade and Patricia Altman impress with a 1960s diner that's faithful down to its handwritten chalkboard menu (the plastic Coke bottle spied behind the counter the lone errancy), and Darst's reappearance draws relief. Too bad it's momentary. Go, but be prepared to leave wanting more of him, not of this particular production. Michael Altman directs. Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 23. (323) 501-0511. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

GO KEN ROHT'S 99 CENT-ONLY SAME-O: AN ELECTRIC BALLAD Writer-director-choreographer-composer Ken Roht originally launched his series of annual extravaganzas as shows utilizing mostly cheap materials available from 99¢ Only Stores. This year, to dramatize sustainability, he's added a subtitle, "Paper Not Plastic," and added a dazzling array of paper and cardboard from Green Paper Alliance. The results are wondrous. To craft this "whimsical-surrealist theatrical collage," Roht has assembled a cast of 18 versatile actors, singers and dancers, co-written the stirring score with musical director John Ballinger, provided the lively choreography and assembled a huge cadre of designers and visual artists. They've concocted a show that suggests the Ziegfeld Follies on acid. David Offner designed the handsome set of butcher paper and corrugated cardboard, and designer Ann Closs-Farley created the ingenious and eye-popping paper costumes, awash in butterflies and flowers. As a response to the passing of Proposition 8, Roht builds his show around a pair of male lovers, Eddie and Fred (Max Faugno and Stephen Heath), and for a finale he provides them with a lavish gay wedding. Like all the 99¢ Only shows, this is a holiday celebration, if not exactly a Christmas show. It's more like Mardi Gras or Winter Solstice. Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Koreatown; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (213) 389-3856, bootlegtheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)

THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT Stephen Adly Giurgis sets his play in Purgatory, where Judas is on trial for his betrayal of Jesus, with events and characters filtered through a decidedly modern, urban sensibility. For most of Act 1, it's engrossing stuff, but Giurgis' tone grows uncertain, and he seems to be playing both ends against the middle: After establishing an irreverent, sassy, revisionist tone, he veers into a reverent, earnest mode. And the piece goes on too long, well past the point of diminishing returns. Fortunately, director Jeremy Aluma has given it a terrific production, with a huge and sterling cast. Tony Gatto shines as the irascible judge, Nick Mills is a flamboyant prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney played by Jessica Culaciati defends her client by indicting everybody else, from Mother Teresa (Angie Light) to Caiaphas the Elder (Adam Tsekhman) and Pontius Pilate (Paul Tully). Levi Sochet's Satan is a smooth, glad-handing hipster; Lowam Eyasu is a Saint Monica with attitude; and as Judas, Vincent Mentry gives texture and credibility to a role that is largely passive until near the end. Fred Kinney and Staci Walters provide the fancifully handsome set, with ominous sound design by Adam Smith. Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., downtown; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. Produced by Urban Theatre Movement with Company of Angels. urbantheatremovement.com. (Neal Weaver)

 

OUR BEDS ARE CROWDED There's never exactly two people in a relationship. Some days, a couple is crowded by memories of their exes; other days, they're together but feeling alone. Christie Perfetti's seven short plays about relationships are at these two extremes: These floundering lovers are thinking of someone else or, more often, talking directly to the audience as though their amour didn't exist. What's rare is a moment of two-person connection — for every intimacy Perfetti invites us to witness, there's a complicating soliloquy where one partner attempts to predict and elude the other's reaction. And lest we connect to these 14 struggling souls as people, she's stripped them of their names and dubbed them The Receptionist, The Russian and The Mistress, etc. In "The Neighbor," a bored artist (Liana Johnston) is waiting for the boy next door (Gregory Guardino) to tick her off and then try to get in her bed. In "The Proposal," an overworked doctor (Tracey Silver) tries to outwit her girlfriend's (Maria Paris) fight-starting emotional tests. Perfetti's stories are shot through with cynicism and a small, furtive hope that love could somehow, maybe, one day, be simple. But director Stefan Lysenko can't heat up these icy tales, and the stiff ensemble and nearly three-hour running time aren't helping. Still, Annie O'Neil's solo performance in "The Magazine" sticks with you after the curtain. She plays a bereaved mother who discovers her teenage son's porn subscription after his death. These lesbian leather nudie mags are first a toast to her boy's secret joys, then a painful monthly reminder, then an opportunity for her husband to play hero and, lastly, a symbol of the youth she traded in to be a mother. As her feelings evolve, we feel lucky to be let into her inner journey. Write Act Theater, 6128 Yucca St., Hollywood; Mon.-Tues., 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 21. (323) 469-3113. (Amy Nicholson)

THE STORIES OF CESAR CHAVEZ Staged sparely, with no director credited, writer-performer Fred Blanco's solo show looks at the life of Cesar Chavez, interspersing his ruminations with portraits of other people who played a significant role in this notable man's life. Blanco frames his chronicle around a prayerful communion between Chavez, a steadfast Catholic, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, to whom he turns for strength and guidance during one of his fasts protesting the inhumane treatment of Hispanic farm workers. First developed as an educational vehicle, the story harks back to Chavez's Texas childhood, when he was physically chastised in school for speaking Spanish, through his adolescence, when he and some friends were harassed for sitting in the "whites only" section of a movie theater, to his transformation into a national labor leader. The show's most dynamic moments, paradoxically, come from Blanco's portrait not of the storied hero but of Chavez's nemeses, a ruthless employer with zero respect for the workers' humanity and a rival activist, whose rage against injustice brought forth a call for violent action that Chavez firmly opposed. Both monologues serve as solid showcases for Blanco's skills as a performer, more than his rendering of Chavez, a performance that lacks immediacy. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Silver Lake; Sun., 7 p.m.; Tues., Dec. 7, 8 p.m.; Tues., Dec. 14, 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 12. (310) 281-8337. (Deborah Klugman)

GO TRAVELING CARNIVAL FREAKSHOW If Tod Browning and the Brothers Quay had collaborated on a stage version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, the results might have resembled this whimsical Gothic fairy tale by writers Questa Gleason and Chelsea Sutton (Sutton also directs). Though billed as a "holiday-themed show," the production's most refreshing aspect is the absence of a Santa or a sleigh or a shred of tinsel. Rather than the North Pole, the setting here is a carnival freak show (courtesy of Lucila Caro's sideshow-tent set) run by the nefarious barker and black witch, Rena (assistant choreographer Danielle Cintron). The dominatrix-like Rena's form of vivisection comes via a knife thrust from her magic dagger, which reverses H.G. Wells by turning hapless humans into grotesque beasts. Her victims include Wilhelmina (Beth Ricketson), who has been transformed into a crone Tarot reader; the henchmen/slaves Santo (choreographer Mason Hallberg) and Freak (Sahar Yousefi); and star attraction Zada (Gleason), "The Wooden Monstrosity." When Rena's itinerant hell show crosses paths with the penniless Edwin (Jeff Newman), however, his love-at-first-sight passion for Zada may just prove the white magic of Rena's undoing. Hallberg's charming dance sequences and the addition of a weekly guest burlesque artist (the fetching, temporarily tulle-attired Bebe Firefly at the performance reviewed) inject some appealing spectacle, but the star of the show is designer Lori Meeker and her vividly expressive monster masks and costumes. Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 19. (818) 508-3003, eclecticcompanytheatre.org. (Bill Raden)

 

GO WEST SIDE STORY If you've ever come across a letter or diary entry written by a younger version of a parent or grandparent, a whole new window into that person opens up, humanizing them in a way that may otherwise have seemed impossible. This touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival does the same for Jerome Robbins' musical set in 1950s New York and loosely adapted from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Not only are the members of the Jets and Sharks more menacing, libidinous and raw, but large portion of Laurents' book and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics have been translated into Spanish, rounding out the sabor of the Puerto Rican characters and taking them beyond caricature and stereotype. In a sense, this production could be considered more faithful to Robbins' original vision than any to date. David Saint's crisply paced direction crescendos at the appropriate moments without spilling over into brassy Broadway-gasms, and James Youmans' "industrial minimalism" design features strong diagonals accentuated by Howell Binkley's angular lighting. The delicately powerful soprano of Ali Ewoldt (Maria) plays well against the resonant baritone of Kyle Harris (Tony), and both are skillfully utilized by musical director John O'Neill, who holds the musical numbers close to the brink of a climax without providing a release until the last possible moment. And though their contributions are more theatrical than vocal, Mike Boland (Krupke) and Christopher Patrick Mullen (Lt. Schrank) serve as the menacing long arm of the law, instead of the stooges they're often played as. As a result, the overriding authenticity of the piece keeps this classic as dangerous, edgy and relevant as ever. Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (through Dec. 19); holiday schedule (Dec. 21–Jan. 2): Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m.; Thurs., 2 & 8 p.m.; Fri. 2 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. (800) 982-2787, BroadwayLA.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

THE ZOMBIE HOLIDAY SPECIAL This irreverent departure from the customary Yuletide fare has some gleaming moments of comedy, but not enough to leave a lasting impression. It's formatted as a Christmas TV special hosted by a family whose members consist of the living and the undead. Mom and Dad (Patrick Bristow and Peggy Etra) have that squeaky-clean '50 sitcom look, as does son Gavin (Grant Baciocco), daughter Merry (Vanessa Whitney) and lovable ol' Grandma (Alison Mork). There's even a token Jew named David (Matt Vlahakis), who sports a yarmulke and prayer shawl. The comic sizzle comes from Jayne Entwistle as Holly and Chris Sheets as Grandpa; both are green-faced zombies joining the festivities postmortem. Despite director Bristow's best efforts to sustain the humor, overkill sets in and the jokes wear thin. The cast really shines during the improvisational segments. In one hilarious instance, the family puts on a display of culinary pizzazz, accompanied by a hilarious musical ditty. Improvatorium at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 18. (323) 960-7612. (Lovell Estell III)


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