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Theater Reviews: The Color Purple, High School Musical, Bob's Holiday Office Party

(Photo by Michelle Pedersen)

   BOB’S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY Now in its 12th season, Joe Keyes and Rob Elk’s holiday sitcom spins out some gloriously funny lines and cameos from the premise of a drunken Christmas party in the ramshackle office of a ramshackle insurance agent, Bob Finhead (Elk), somewhere in a small Midwest town. Bob’s the product of three generations of insurance salesmen, and he’s now torn between staying with his deranged community and heading for new, creative opportunities as an inventor in Des Moines — city of light, city of magic. People come, people go, including pudgy, now-bald Elwin Beewee (Kyle Colerider-Krugh), returning as a success after being hogtied to a wall in high school, mocked for his acne and explosive-bowel syndrome and referred to as“stinky.” No longer a stutterer and seemingly jocular, Elwin is more diabolical than he appears, with a clandestine plan to exact his revenge. His threat to the town provides a theme-and-variation on The Cherry Orchard, as filtered through an episode of The Office. It’s one thing when Sheriff Joe Walker (Joe Keyes) sits on a toilet with a broken door, showing his knees while chattering about the Bible, but a more somber horror emerges when one of the aging Johnson triplets (Linda Miller, Melissa Denton and Maile Flanagan) sputters mockingly at Elwin’s belief in global warming— “Bet you believe in the tooth fairy as well . . . and evolution,” she smirks — followed by screams of laughter all round. Ann Randolph turns in a pair of insane cartoons as folksinger Carol — recently released from the asylum — and town whore Brandy, looking for any crotch to rest her head on. And Mark Fite, a cross between Owen Wilson and a young Bill Pullman, makes for a perfect pothead as Marty, who keeps crashing his truck — sometimes without even starting it. Why Bob would want to escape these people is evident; why he would be conflicted by that decision is less so. Justin Tanner directs this spitfire ensemble with timing so fine you don’t even know it’s been tuned. THE LOUNGE THEATRE, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 22. (323) 960-7714. (Steven Leigh Morris)

(Photo by Michelle Pedersen)
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(Photo by Paul Kolnik)
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PICKTHE COLOR PURPLE Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel went Broadway two years ago and, in an adaptation market besotted with fleecy sentimentality and formulaic musicals, received a surprisingly faithful and melodic compression from book writer Marsha Norman and composer-lyricists Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. This touring show transforms Walker’s epistolary narrative into a reductive but irresistible story about Celie (Jeannette Bayardelle), a Southern black woman beaten down almost from birth but whose resilience allows her to survive and triumph in an America slowly changing over her lifetime. Set in rural Georgia between 1909 and 1949, Purple traces Celie’s brutal adolescence as she goes from being the sexual plaything of her stepfather (Quentin Earl Darrington) to the oppressed child bride of a man known only as “Mister” (Rufus Bonds Jr.). The tale fascinates not only because of its Dickensian tropes and insular African-American milieu, but also because Celie’s oppression by Mister occurs within the larger hell created by white society. In addition to the traditional Southern three strikes (black, poor and female), Celie is also a lesbian, and comes out during her early friendship with Shug Avery (Michelle Williams), a high-living singer who is also Mister’s sometime mistress. Although Act 2 suffers from an inevitable sugar rush stemming from empowerment, reform and reconciliation, Purple sustains much of its punch over its nearly two-and-a-half hours. Original production director Gary Griffin gets great efforts from a huge ensemble, but especially from Bayardelle as the long-suffering Celie, and Bonds as her delightfully evil husband. Center Theatre Group at the AHMANSON THEATRE, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.; mats Sat., 2 p.m. & Sun., 1 p.m.; no perfs Dec. 25, Jan. 1 & March 5 or evenings Feb. 3 & March 9; added perfs Dec. 27, Jan. 31 & March 6, 2 p.m. & Dec. 31, 8 p.m.; perf March 4 is 7:30 p.m.; thru March 9. (213) 972-7231. (Steven Mikulan)

A DOLL HOUSE Blame Oprah that Henrik Ibsen’s melodrama about a sheltered wife who empowers herself by leaving her paternalistic husband has irrevocably lost its shock value. What remains is a fatalistic, long-winded and aging play about class and gender conflict that needs a fresh approach. Aramazd Stepanian’s production, updated to the 1950s, considers taking Ibsen in two vastly different directions: First, as Kanye West would agree, casting a black actor (Jonaton Wyne) as husband Torvald gives a sharp new edge to his quest to gain upward mobility with the perfect trophy wife, yet ultimately the choice feels incidental. Drawing the play into the world of an I Love Lucy episode, albeit with threats of suicide, Georgan George’s Nora is a dizzy schemer with flaming red hair and pearls, aiming to distract Torvald from discovering her terrible secret. This approach would be worth exploring more deeply, especially with judgmental friend Kristine (Fernanda Kelly) reborn as Ethel Mertz. Instead, this friendly but tepid revival simply can’t shake off the dust. LUNA PLAYHOUSE, 3706 San Fernando Road, Glendale; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 28-29 & Jan. 4-5); thru Jan. 19. (818) 500-7200. (Amy Nicholson)

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EXTRAORDINARY DECEPTIONS: A MAGICAL HOLIDAY EXTRAVAGANZA Performer Michael Gutenplan is a magician of the old school, and, in his solo tour de force, the stage crackles with familiar yet still-engaging trickery. Among the feats of legerdemain: Gutenplan waves his hand, and a $20 bill plucked from the hand of an audience member reappears — inside a lemon! (The owner of the bill was less than pleased with the drippy, juice-covered Jefferson that was returned to him at the end of the act.) A gal is dragged from the audience and Gutenplan saws her in half, using one of those automatic carving knives dad uses on the Thanksgiving turkey. Cards are whisked from decks, and reappear inside sealed envelopes or in corked bottles of Evian. Gutenplan is an unusually likable and sincere performer with a laid-back, slightly neurotic persona that nicely belies his lightning-quick sleights of hand and cunning misdirections. Yet his smooth-running act, unpretentiously and unobtrusively directed by Ryan Dixon, cries out for a more intimate forum. The show inevitably feels adrift in even the comparatively modest environs of this venue’s stage space. This material is better suited for a lounge — and an audience of people with a few drinks under their belts. POWERHOUSE THEATER, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; thru Dec 30. (310) 396-3680, Ext. 3. (Paul Birchall)

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HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL At intermission, an older woman across the aisle turned to her husband and asked what he thought of Disney’s touring musical. He shrugged before filing his review: “It is what it is.” Another shrug. “But I can see why the kids like it.” I have little to add to this accurate and concise assessment of David Simpatico’s stage adaptation of the Disney movie about high school jocks and brainiacs stumbling over the differences between art and sports, and onto the meaning of love and life. This isn’t a work of entertainment, but of marketing. There are more than a dozen songwriters credited. All those people, and not an original ditty in earshot. Like the story, the songs are recycled, watered-down versions of ideas that worked better somewhere else — like in the movie, or in Wicked, for example, which at least had the guts to paint its outcast green. That’s someone you can take seriously, on either a human or symbolic plane. Here, the nerds are lifted from Saturday Night Live, which puts them at a sanitized remove . The creators don’t have the courage or imagination to give their brainy, pretty ingenue (Arielle Jacobs) any of the disturbing qualities that kids might recognize as something beyond a façade. However, Ellen Harvey is great fun as the theater-arts teacher who wobbles between binges of stern discipline and gooey arts exploration. She carries a bucket to collect cell phones labeled “cell block 3,” which is pretty funny, and it was good to see George and Georgina Spelvin back together onstage at last. KODAK THEATRE, 6801 Hollywood Blvd.; Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 23. (323) 308-6333. (Steven Leigh Morris)


PAGING DR. CHUTZPAH Inspired by ’60s sex farces and ribald Vaudeville skits, playwright Mark Troy’s comedy is a romp that rolls by on director Lynne Moses and her cast’s commitment to the play’s zany shenanigans. Dr. Lester Oronofsky (Marq Del Monte) is considered top psychiatrist in Manhattan. But one wonders how he hasn’t gotten slapped with a sexual-harassment lawsuit due to his predilection for seducing his patients. In yet another conflict of conscience over a recent conquest, he vows to halt his wanton ways — again. But his latest patient, Kitty (Heidi Fielek), a stripper with a randy libido and a new boob job to match, tests his feeble resolve. The good doctor also gets a visit from his sycophantic nephew, Herman (Danny Lippin), a recently graduated psychiatrist whom Oronofsky hasn’t seen since he was a baby and who wants to follow in his cherished uncle’s footsteps — and take over his business. Add to the mix Bonnie (Colette Freedman), Herman’s old-fashioned, librarian fiancée with second thoughts, and Oronofsky’s secretary Myrna (Alycia Tracy), who changes accents and sultry costumes to attract her oblivious boss, and you’re in for a wacky night, punctuated by Troy’s snappy one-liners, Moses’ breezy staging, and Del Monte’s lecherous leer and Yiddish kvetching. SIDEWALK STUDIO THEATRE, 4150 Riverside Dr., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan. 26. (818) 558-5702. (Martín Hernández)


SEVEN SANTAS Playwright Jeff Goode can’t decide whether he wants to be the Grinch or Father Christmas — or maybe Jerry Springer. The seven Santas represent various aspects of Mr. Claus. The action is set at a contentious Alcoholics Anonymous meeting presided over by Mrs. Claus (Samantha Bennett), who announces, “I’ve been clean and sober for 45 minutes.” In his various incarnations, Santa is presented as a lethal drunk driver (Michael Patrick McGill), a businessman (Frank Ensenberger) who sees Christmas as an ideal venue for commercial exploitation, a celebrity coke-head (Chris Erric Maddox), an elf-exploiter (Tisha Terrasini), a saint and secret drinker (Michelle Lema), a cobbler-cum-entrepreneur (Rodney Lee Sell), and a pedophile/elf-ophile (Bjørn Johnson). Termagant Mrs. Claus belittles Santa’s sexual equipment and inferior performance until she learns that he had to barter his childish virginity to an evil farmer for a batch of persimmons. The piece is sometimes funny — but decreasingly so as the proceedings get nastier. Then, at the end, Goode shifts gears to provide an unconvincing, uplifting finale. The actors are fine, Darin Anthony’s direction is slick, and Donna Marquet’s handsome blue-green set is ornamented with garlands of lights and persimmons, but the final result is grim. Bah, humbug! THE OPEN FIST THEATRE COMPANY, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; mat Dec. 22, 3 p.m.; thru Dec. 22. (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org. (Neal Weaver)

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SILENT HEROES Playwright Linda Escalera Baggs grew up on a Marine base and her play is a paean to war veterans and their families. Set in the ’70s, it looks at the lives of six U.S. Marine wives as they wait together to learn which of their husbands’ planes has fatally crashed. Patsy (Leslie Ann Thompson), pregnant with her fourth child, can’t bring herself to leave her abusive mate. The perpetually smirking Eleanor (Eileen Grubba) wrestles with rancor after 20 years with a philandering spouse. Felicia (Nadege August), married to one of the corps’ few black aviators, proclaims her patriotism but flails bitterly at the racism that keeps her kid out of the elite, and keeps her out of the ladies’ Avon party. At some point, five of the women self-righteously band together against Miranda (Cynthia Rose Hall), a former antiwar protester and youthful feminist. Directed by Carmen Milito, the piece benefits from a solid dramatic premise, viable conflict and strong female characters, but founders on its soap-opera dialogue and distractingly hammy scenarios. Grubba stays intense and watchable throughout, but the melodrama overtakes the other performers, whose sense of urgency about the life-and-death situation they’re confronted with either comes across as counterfeit or disappears entirely behind some subplotted breast-beating histrionics. And despite Bragg’s effort to provide a forum for both pro- and antiwar sentiment, the play ultimately waves a familiarly tarnished flag, making concern for our soldiers equivalent to accepting bulldog militarism. The VetStage Foundation at GARDNER STAGES, 1501 N. Gardner St., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 22. (818) 308-6296. (Deborah Klugman)


YO HO HO! A PIRATE’S CHRISTMAS In this swashbuckling holiday musical for children (written and directed by James J. Mellon, with songs by Mellon and Scott DeTurk), a crew of intellectually challenged pirates led by Black-Eyed Johnny (Jonathan Zenz) set off in their politically correct ship, The Flying Dutch-Person, thinking they’re headed for the balmy South Seas. But navigator Tusk (J.R. Mangles) looks at his map upside down, so they wind up at the North Pole. Though they’ve never heard of Christmas, they set out to plunder Santa’s workshop. When there’s a reindeer crisis (among other things, Vixen has gone on strike), the pirates are persuaded by elf-child Eve Christmas (Nora James), her family, and Santa (Michael Catlin) and Mrs. Claus (Barbara Oltman) to embrace the Christmas spirit and deliver Santa’s presents on their ship. At 75 minutes, the show’s not too long for the under-12 crowd, with plenty of comic action as pirates swing on ropes, race through the audience, slide down slides, and perform slapstick chases. Craig Siebels’ set, Shon LeBlanc’s colorful costumes, and Luke Moyer’s lighting add to the holiday magic. (Note: Some roles are double-cast.) NOHO ARTS CENTER, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 1 & 7 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 30. (818) 508-1701, Ext. 7 or www.thenohoartscenter.com. (Neal Weaver)


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