Theater Reviews: The Life, Babes in Toyland, Holiday Fever!

GO  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 operetta Babes in Toyland. But this is no kiddie pageant designed for parents to gush at their children onstage; 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 shines via his bizarre physicality and fine vocal work, as the play’s villain, Pete 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.; thru Dec. 21. (626) 356-7529. Theatre 360 and Pasadena Playhouse. (Tom Provenzan)

GO  HOLIDAY FEVER Eight singing, dancing, clowning performers cavort and strut their stuff against a lavish background of silver lamé, snowflakes and glittery blue Christmas trees in this fourth annual rendition of this holiday show. In 90 minutes, 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 evening’s highlight 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 December 20. (323) 960-1052 or www.plays411.com/holidayfever. A joint production by Fever Productions and Fire Rose Productions. (Neal Weaver)

GO  IT’S JUST SEX Jeff Gould’s comedy takes the underpinnings of sexual fantasy, fidelity and money and puts all of those nuances onstage 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, which 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 Ave., Toluca Lake; Fri-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through February 1. (818) 762-2282. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

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) featuring some great voices, which 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 Blvd., Hollywood; Tues.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through December 21. jaxxtheatricals.com. A Jaxx Theatricals production. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST Shakespeare’s comedy of courtship is a romance that ends almost tragically, suggesting an early theatrical cliffhanger, one that might have been resolved in a supposed lost second play, Love’s Labour’s Found. Director Charles Pasternak’s mostly workmanlike 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 lacks 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 than 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 upstage the show’s less successfully realized “main” subplot and save 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)

 

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, been 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-gender 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)

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 normally, 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 is 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, which 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.; through January 4. (818) 508-0281. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  WEST SIDE STORY Now more than a half-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, which 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 marshaling his large, talented ensemble on this small stage, aided by Arthur L. Ross’ 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 December 21. (323) 960-7712. Produced by Musical Theatre of Los Angeles. (Lovell Estell III)


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