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Theater Reviews: DIETRICH AND CHEVALIER: THE MUSICAL

<i>Great Expectations</i>

Michael LamontGreat Expectations

A BEAUTIFUL VIEW Liz (Sarah Boughton) and Mitch (CeCe Pleasants) are two new best girlfriends drawn together by their shared love of camping, fear of bears and fearlessness in pursuing each other’s company. Both self-identify as straight, yet, through misperceptions and booze, spend their first night together in bed. Daniel MacIvor’s stripped-down comic fable skips through the years as it sends the ladies back and forth over the divide between being soul mates and lovers, capturing the shadings of jealousy and tension, but not the highs of passion; we grasp only what they have to lose, not gain. Still, Boughton and Pleasants have an appealing chemistry that occasionally radiates a simmering heat. More often, as directed by Donald Boughton, they’re an adorable — if strident — goofball duo navigating MacIvor’s perceptions of his characters’ self-protection and awkwardness, and, with less success, some stagy scenes where they refuse to look each other in the eye. Son of Semele, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru April 26. (800) 838-3006 or www.sonofsemele.org. An SJB Production. (Amy Nicholson)

Michael Lamont

Great Expectations

Michael Lamont

Snake in the Grass

Haven Hartman

Tallgrass Gothic

 
THE CABARET 2008: ROCK THE BOAT This talented young company shows more passion and innovativeness than organization, at this point. The inspired idea of performing a French-Weimar cabaret (written by Buddy Mackinder) in leotards on the dance floor of a riverboat that’s supposed to take a half-hour, midshow glide around the Long Beach harbor gets slightly undermined by Chris Batstone’s shadow-laden lighting design, some thin voices and a couple of interminable sketches. Eight actors vamp from a number of pop songs, from the Beatles’ “Help!” to Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up.” Yet there are scenes, songs and chorales that bring on goose bumps, they’re so tightly choreographed (by Marney Brewster and Stevie Taken) and/or beautifully sung. Now, director Jeremy Aluma needs to rope those moments into a string of beads that’s less frayed. Danielle Dauphinee’s throaty voice and charismatic persona carry much of the night, and a parody of “Fever” performed by the jock-mocking Scott Lennard and Dena Muschetto is comedic perfection. It was announced that the boat would leave port at intermission. At intermission, an apology was issued: They just learned that the captain was refusing to start the engine without more people onboard. Everyone was invited back next week, when that shouldn’t be a problem. Duke’s Riverboat, Rainbow Harbor, 200 Aquarium Way, Dock 4, Long Beach; Thurs.-Fri., 9 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru April 13. An Alive Theatre production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 
DIETRICH AND CHEVALIER: THE MUSICAL Playwright Jerry Mayer’s opus about the passionate friendship between movie stars Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier is an impeccably researched effort that nevertheless makes the error of mistaking its subjects’ iconic onscreen personas for their real ones. The Blue Angel herself, Marlene (Cissy Conner), meets Monsieur Chevalier (Ray Baker) when they’re both assigned adjacent movie-studio dressing rooms. They become friends and then lovers, even though they’re both happily married to other people. However, as Hitler starts slurping up chunks of Europe, Marlene, under pressure to return to her native Germany, instead takes U.S. citizenship and tours with the USO. By contrast, Maurice, trapped in Paris during the Occupation, is forced to sing and dance before audiences of Nazis. After the war, Marlene comes to her ex-lover’s aid when he’s accused of collaboration. Mayer tells his story as straightforward history, but his stilted dialogue and director Chris DeCarlo’s lackadaisically paced staging are unable to muster the excitement needed to sustain our interest. The performances consist mostly of flat imitations, rather than in-depth renderings of the stars’ personalities. Conner’s Dietrich lacks the throaty, smoky sexuality of the original, instead opting for unconvincing perkiness, while Baker’s Chevalier never rises above his hammy French accent. The show’s musical numbers occasionally mitigate the fustiness, but the songs are not well-integrated within the dramatic actions. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., S.M.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru May 4. A production of The Other Place at the Santa Monica Playhouse. (800) 838-3006. (Paul Birchall)

 
THEATER PICK  GREAT EXPECTATIONS Even after years of development, the stresses between the spindly form of a novel and the comparatively sleek arc of a musical still make themselves felt in Margaret Hoorneman’s delightful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ saga (book by Brian VanDerWilt and Steve Lozier, music by Richard Winzeler, and lyrics by Steve Lane). There are scenes of narrative elaboration where one aches for dramatic impetus. This may be irresolvable, and why should it matter? The event is something between a musical and an opera — Winzeler’s music has the distinctive rhythmic counterpoint of Sondheim, with a smidgen of Gilbert & Sullivan thrown in. VanDerWilt and Lozier’s book throws into soft focus the love triangle among laborer Pip (Adam Simmons); the aristocrat Estella (Shannon Warne), whose calculations to break men’s hearts have been drilled into her by the bitter, and later remorseful, Miss Havisham (Ellen Crawford); and, waiting in the wings, Pip’s long-suffering friend, Biddy (the gently electrifying Zarah Mahler), who would rather take things further. Paradoxically, it’s because Hoorneman’s adaptation remains so faithful to the novel that the epic twists and turns of fate, and of social ascension and decline, emerge. They emerge at the cost of the musical’s impetus, but it may be worth that sacrifice. Jules Aaron stages a loving and stylish production with a huge ensemble (vocal abilities vary), including gaunt-faced children, accompanied by a tiny band, under Brian Murphy’s musical direction. Too many sparkling teeth reminds one that this is Dickens’ London as seen through a Hollywood lens. With a few minor lapses, the accents are plausible, and Shon LeBlanc’s costumes are gorgeous. Hudson Backstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (added perf April 20, 7 p.m.); thru April 27. (323) 960-4442. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 
GO  SNAKE IN THE GRASS If you like double-cross genre plays with twists, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Alan Ayckbourn’s 2002 divertissement — even though, unlike in Sleuth and Death Trap, you can see those twists coming a mile away. Annabel Chester (Pamela Salem) returns to England to claim her inheritance, now that her father has died after a long illness. Unfortunately, his former nurse, Alice (Nicola Bertram), is blackmailing Annabel’s sister, Miriam (Claire Jacobs), for helping with her father’s demise. If the sisters come up with £100,000, Alice will turn over a letter the dying man scribbled accusing Miriam of trying to murder him. On the other hand, it might be more cost-effective for the two to get rid of Alice than this damning bit of evidence. Snake is an old-fashioned thriller capable of wowing modern audiences, and this cast proves itself more than capable. Salem especially shines as the prissy scold whose flawed heart condition suggests a deeper moral condition. Director Mark Rosenblatt emphasizes atmospherics, and these pay off to give us a chill even as we judge the characters. The Matrix’s wide stage accommodates Laura Fine Hawkes’ nicely detailed garden set that establishes the lay of the land in three defined spaces. Eric Snodgrass’ sound design is crisp and subtle, touching the senses like a layer of night fog. Prerecorded music is usually intrusive in nonmusicals, but Hal Lindes’ restrained score fortifies the story’s unsettling mood. Matrix Theater, 7657 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 4. (323) 960-4420. A Salem K Theater Co. Production. (Steven Mikulan)

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THE SUNSHINE BOYS It’s disconcerting to find the Odyssey Theatre, long noted for adventurous work, presenting this most commercial of Neil Simon’s Broadway comedies, perhaps as a sop to its older, not-so-adventurous audiences. Simon has a rare talent for extracting endless crowd-pleasing one-liners from simple situations. If he tends to reduce his material to the level of TV sitcom, he can also suggest deeper issues buried under the relentless comedy. Here, he focuses on a pair of cantankerous retired vaudevillians, peppery Willie Clark (Hal Linden) and laid-back Al Lewis (Allan Miller). After 43 years as a successful comedy team, they are now estranged, and permanently unemployed. Willie’s nephew and agent, Ben (Eddie Kehler), has lined up a rare opportunity for them to appear on a History of Comedy Network television special, but the project is threatened by Willie’s long-nursed resentments. Lurking beneath the jokes is the sad tale of a couple of old coots who have outlived their times and commercial viability, being driven to accept their own irrelevance and loss of autonomy. It’s Linden’s irascible performance that dominates, with Miller, Kehler and Jackée Harry providing nimble comic foils. Director Jeffrey Hayden has assembled a slick and brisk production on Charles Erven’s nostalgically shabby set. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; thru June 1; variable schedule, call theater for info. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)

Jeremy Aluma

The Cabaret 2008: Rock the Boat

 
TALLGRASS GOTHIC There’s not much happening in the backwater farm community where Melanie Marnich’s steamy drama unfolds: Folks go to church, get drunk, tell ghost stories, maybe “fool around.” In this narrow cultural enclave of rough beer-swilling farmers, pretty, coquettish Laura (Carrie Wiita) stands out. Married to the carnally brutish and domineering Tin (Gregory Sims), she’s caught up in a passionate affair with a strapping buck named Daniel (RJ Debard) — but inexplicably hedges when he implores her to run away with him. Her life implodes after the local psycho (Kevin Meoak) — who is hot for her himself — commits a shocking act. Marnich’s spare storytelling style eschews the background details of these people’s lives; we’re never told how the lovers met, or why the scrupulous Laura remains married to a man she so evidently despises. This leaves the performers plenty of leeway to connect the dots — an opportunity Wiita seizes with delectably captivating skill, but which other performers unhappily leave undone. This doesn’t include Sims, whose multilayered performance bares the need beneath his character’s explosive anger, or JJ Maynes, on target as the neighbor who nervously tries to clue him in on Laura’s hanky-panky. Under Jaime L. Robledo’s direction, the show’s uncredited music, Yancey Dunham’s lighting and Ben Rock’s sound design come together to create a sense of spooky desolation. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Hlywd.; Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m.; thru May 7. (310) 281-8337. (Deborah Klugman)

 
TIME’S SCREAM AND HURRY Of uneven caliber, these three monologues by writer-director Paul Hoan Zeidler share urban settings and violent motifs. In “So-So’s Sister,” the dreams of a Latina teen (Yecenia Torres) are shattered when the boyfriend she adores impregnates her mentally disabled sister. Soon afterward, their father is murdered, and she’s forced into the role of guardian and provider. In “Match Girl,” Jessica Graham (alternating with J.J. Pyle) portrays a woman who as a child engaged in S.I. (self-injury) by burning herself whenever she felt threatened or depressed. As an adult, she spurns clean-cut boyfriends and becomes a dominatrix who mutilates willing clients. In “The Good Boyfriend,” a regular Joe (Max Williams) hooks up with a rape victim and forgoes a normal sex life as he tries to nurse his girlfriend through her trauma. As a director, Zeidler keeps the pace moving, with Adam Hunter’s lighting design aptly punctuating changes in time, place and mood. But the script itself packs too many contrivances and sensationalistic details. For all her earnest energy, Torres’ performance comes off as inauthentic, while the willowy Graham affects a jaded air that is effective until the bizarreness within her narrative spins out of control. Williams’ strong presence and assured delivery are likewise undercut by the writing. His piece is far too extended, and one in which the personality of the rape victim herself never comes into clear focus. Elephant Performance Lab, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru May 3. (323) 960-7712 or www.plays411.com/time. A Sewer Socialist production. (Deborah Klugman)