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Theater Reviews: Altar Boyz, the Apple Tree, Chariot, Sprung: A Love Story

Pericles Redux
Courtesy of Not Man Apart Productions

GO ALTAR BOYZ
For those older than 15, boy bands have long been fodder for easy ridicule — stir in Christian rock and malicious burlesque becomes ripe for the picking. But in this outing by playwright Kevin Del Aguila, with songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, derision is superseded by affection. The book is so sweet and the lyrics so gentle that the show lacks a satisfying satirical bite. But the good news is in the performances. Jesse Bradley, Clifford Bañagale, Jake Wesley Stewart, Robert Acinapura and Kelly Rice blend their disparate personalities, boyish charms and harmonic voices to create an ensemble that could easily play it straight for the right audiences. Choreographer Ameenah Kaplan takes great advantage of the boys’ uniform physical agility and athleticism, creating song-and-dance numbers far more entertaining than the overdone Catholic jokes. Musical director Christopher Lloyd Bratten and his band (Adam Halitzka, Nick Perez and Carson Schutze) are totally in synch, keeping the show bouncy and charming for 90 minutes. Michael Mullen’s too-precious rock costumes are terrific and amusing. Only the imminent threat of forced audience participation slightly dulls the luster. Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through August 23. (323) 957-1884. (Tom Provenzano)

THE APPLE TREE
In a series of three one-act musicals by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the duo who brought us Fiddler on the Roof), this 1966 piece thematically explores whether getting what you want leads to wanting what you get. However, unlike the original Broadway version, this production features three (mostly) separate casts and directors. The opener, “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” a wry take on the familiar Biblical tale adapted from the Mark Twain story, is followed by “The Lady or the Tiger?,” from Frank R. Stockton’s story of a king’s barbaric system of justice, and finally by “Passionella,” a Cinderella-style story about a chimney sweep who dreams of being a movie star. In the first act, Gary Lamb’s direction and choreography are unspectacular, and the energy of the piece, including the musical direction’s pacing, is lacking. In the second, director William A. Reilly’s pacing is similarly uneven, as is the level of camp required to sell the material, though Kit Paquin as Princess Barbara really sells “I’ve Got What You Want.” The final act is the evening’s highlight, as Matthew J. Williamson’s direction features cleverly minimalist set pieces, unique staging, quick costume changes, and the right amount of shtick to bring the material to life. Stephanie Fredericks also shines as Ella/Passionella, with her strong vocals, comic flair and timing. Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., N. Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through August 9. (818) 745-8527. (Mayank Keshaviah)

BILLIE AND BOGIE
Billie Holiday and Humphrey Bogart had enough superficiality in common to make them an apt pair for a show about the psyche of two hard-drinking, hard-living New Yorkers. They became icons while still feeling they had something to prove — Holiday to the bigoted, and Bogart to audiences who underestimated and then overestimated his acting ability. This is a fine show, but it isn’t the show I’ve just described. Instead, director Bryan Rasmussen presents Bogie (Dan Spector) and Lady Day (Synthia L. Hardy) as legends gracing us with a few dark anecdotes about their roots. Spector and Hardy are sincere in their affections for these imposing pop figures, but there’s a whiff of Wikipedia to their character profiles — their monologues are arranged chronologically, not thematically, chugging along at the highs and lows of lives about to be cut short while guzzling (but not feeling) enough booze to tranquilize a tiger. With a running time of nearly three hours, by the end, we should know Bogie and Billie better than we do. Instead we walk about with the warm melancholy of sharing a drink with a fascinating stranger we’ll never meet again. Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Sat., 8 p.m.; through August 22. (818) 990-2324. (Amy Nicholson)

CHARIOT
It is 1987 and the Hills are the only black family in a tidy but sterile suburb of the San Fernando Valley. In a too-successful attempt at assimilation, the family members have repressed nearly every emotional and spiritual problem that comes their way. In Steven Lee’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink melodrama, Grandmother (Gayle La Rone) arrives from the South in her chariot (an expensive sports car) to spread her wealth and shake the family loose from its self-loathing and hypocrisy. Lee’s script gives each of the generally solid actors enormous scene-chewing speeches, and director Cary Thompson encourages high-powered performances, which never let up and, unfortunately, too often turn to screaming matches and chest-pounding. Lee’s exhaustive list of dramatic issues centers on homosexuality, psychosis, religious rejection, alcoholism and violence. Near the end we wonder why he left out incest — oh, never mind we get to that, too. Thomas (TJ) Walker provides an array of terrific costumes, which offer the visual cues not found in the simple set pieces that create the modest suburban home. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through September 2. (323) 960-7788. (Tom Provenzano)

GOD BOX
Ana Guigui’s “musical dramedy” has moments of brilliance but suffers from a lack of coherence and an awkward format. The play is set in a local hotel lounge where she, Guigui — the daughter of Argentinian Jews — plays piano, recounts her life as the daughter of a peregrinating symphony conductor, life in New York, and a warm but often testy relationship with her parents and brother. Initially, the material is compelling and often humorous, so much so, that you want to hear more of it. But the play’s real focus is her frustrating search for romance and a soul mate, whose qualities are written down and kept in her “God box.” Accounts of a furtive childhood kiss, a first love and sexual outing, the pain of an abortion, and a romantic hookup with a salesman unfurl in a facile patchwork that is often difficult to follow and not particularly interesting. Guigui is delightful when channeling characters, with the singular exception of a black rapper she encountered, which hovers perilously close to crude caricature. But the woman can play the hell out of the piano, and sings like an angel, with a diverse repertoire that even includes a haunting rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Robert Barker Lyon directs. Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Aug. 2 perf at 1 p.m.); through August 16. (323) 960-5770. (Lovell Estell III)

OCTOMOM! THE MUSICAL
Chicago has gritty realism. New York has Broadway musicals. So what’s the L.A. aesthetic? I’ve heard complaints — I think they were sneers — that L.A. has no unifying theater style, just like it has no unifying geography. Not true: L.A. has camp. You see more parody of stupid movies, stupid TV shows and stupid people on the stages of L.A. than any other genre — even more than one-person showcases for TV. The latest example is this quite charming, clever-in-parts (the eight kids are sock puppets) and terribly overhyped (preview coverage on Fox TV and in People magazine) cabaret about thoughtless and relentless greed, which is probably to our era what religious hypocrisy was to Molière’s. Writer-director Chris Voltaire’s theatrical comic book, with witty, light music by Rachel Lawrence, interlinks the voracious appetites of Nadya Suleman (the excellent Molly McCook) and Bernie Madoff (John Combs, also fine). It suffers somewhat from the plight of trying to be on top of the news with topics that were in the news cycle a few months ago. But the underlying source of the satire Voltaire is gunning for certainly hasn’t gone anywhere. The insights are broad as a barn. Madoff meets that schemer Ponzi (Blake Hogue, with a keen expression of derangement that works for number of cameos) in a sweet soft-shoe number. It could be in the style of Tom Lehrer, but this is more obvious and less sly. The production’s strength lies in Dean McFlicker’s musical staging, and the actors’ terrific movement skills — particularly that of Dinora Walcott, the crooning emcee. Oh, but the thin voices bring it down. As though this stuff is easy, as though a musical can work without the triple threat of acting, dancing and singing. With the threadbare canned accompaniment, we’re missing about a third of the musical-comedy trinity in those wispy voices — sometimes out of key. Not so for McCook’s Octomom, beautifully peevish, whining and with a sense of entitlement as bloated as her belly. She carries the show, in tune and on step, like a latter-day Mother Courage. Fake Gallery, 4319 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; Sat., 8 & 10 p.m.; indef. (323) 856-1168. (Steven Leigh Morris)

PICK  PERICLES REDUX
Scholars have long discussed whether Shakespeare wrote the entirety of Pericles, Prince of Tyre or collaborated with another writer. (Given the play’s convoluted elements, most commentators have concluded the latter.) Incorporating aspects of Grotowski’s Poor Theater, choreographer and director John Farmanesh-Bocca’s brilliant interpretation, Pericles Redux, employs music, dance and comic spectacle to layer the frequently undistinguished text with humor and depth. Farmanesh-Bocca plays Pericles in a production that begins with a mesmerizing dance prologue, suggesting Job battling the oppressive forces of fate. It then launches into the actual plot, which involves the prince’s flight from a wicked king; his winning of a beautiful princess; his losing her in a shipwreck; and his desolate wanderings under the false assumption that both his wife, Dionyza, and daughter Marina are dead. (Both roles are winningly played by Jennifer Landon, though in the denouement, gifted young dancer Rachel McGuinness takes over as Marina.) Among the show’s memorably funny sequences are the court tournament in which Pericles, armed only with a fork, duels in increasingly lopsided odds; and a brothel scene in which plucky adolescent Marina, equipped with both prayer and martial arts, outsmarts the lechers targeting her chastity. Played out on a large, bare proscenium, the piece expands its macrocosmic reach by virtue of designers Randy Brumbaugh’s lighting and Adam Phalen’s sound. The ensemble proves versatile and accomplished, with significant contributions to staging from fight captain Dash Pepin and co-choreographer and dance captain Vincent Cardinale. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (213) 628-2772. A Not Man Apart Production. (Deborah Klugman)

GO SPRUNG: A LOVE STORY
The “sprung” in writer-director Tony Marsiglia’s off-kilter, comic Grand Guignol carries multiple connotations for his antihero chemist, Samuel Nathanson (Marsiglia in a compelling performance). There is the sense of obsessive infatuation, although in the 49-year-old Nathanson’s case, it is not for his 20-year-old, pregnant girlfriend, Tracy (co-writer Donna Kane), but for the MDMA and methamphetamine crystals he cooks up and deals from his living room lab. That he also loves to ingest the particularly potent creations he calls “red doxies” leads to the second sense — the spaced-out, psychotropic paranoia produced by his ecstasy-eating diet. Finally there is the haywire clockwork sense of his tightly wound existence coming unsprung before our very eyes. As the wild-eyed Nathanson painfully rehearses for the important job interview he is clearly in no shape to make, a succession of skeevy ravers (Jeremy Gladen and Lucas Salazar), psychotic tweakers (a charismatic Tom Wiilde and scene-stealing Amelia Gotham), malevolent cops (Gladen and Jim Eshom), and even a vindictive third wife (Denise Devlin) collide in his seedy apartment and derail his belated attempts to get his runaway train of a life back on track. Marsiglia, a direct-to-DVD horror auteur, successfully transfers his black, surrealist humor to the stage, racking up laughs, an impressive body count and a surprisingly authentic portrayal of the retreat into solipsistic self-destruction that awaits substance abusers of any stripe. ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through August 1. (818) 202-4120. A Theatre Slanty production. (Bill Raden)

GO STOP KISS
Manhattan traffic newscaster Callie (Deborah Puette) meets Sara (Kristina Harrison) the week the young, blond schoolteacher arrives in the city. Both have always identified themselves as straight: Callie’s got her friend-with-benefits George (Christan Anderson), whom she assumes she’ll marry once they both stop trying to find someone better, and Sara has just left behind (in St. Louis) her boyfriend of seven years, Peter (Justin Okin), in her quest to find a bigger, harder, more worthwhile life. The two women gradually become best friends, deliciously tormented by their quiet hints that they both want a more physical relationship. But no sooner do they stick a tentative foot out of the closet than they’re pushed out in the worst possible way — as a news story about a violent bigot who puts Sara in a coma. Diana Son’s time-jumping play about coping with the unexpected skips from their first meeting to Callie’s first sit-down with the investigating cop (Jeorge Watson); we’re rooting for the couple to get together under the shadow of the consequences. But Son’s equal emphasis on romance makes the play looser and more inviting than a social-problem drama, and the question isn’t about the source of hate but the depth of Callie’s love, when Peter announces that Sara’s family wants to move her hospital bed back to Missouri. Under Elina de Santos and Matthew Elkin’s direction, the ensemble’s Opening Night was still a little stiff, but Puette’s tender performance captures a haphazard woman realizing that she’s finally sure of at least one thing. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through August 23. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. (323) 960-7774. A Rogue Machine production. (Amy Nicholson)

 

 


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