A bucket full of enthusiastic reviews this week, starting with the Pick of the Week, Sweet Thursday, Pacific Resident Theatre's stage adaptation of the novel by John Steinbeck. Also garnering good notices: Neo Ensemble Theatre's Epic Proportions; Moliere's The Fools at Santa Monica Playhouse; also in Santa Monica, a Japanese swordfight play, Katana, at Morgan-Wixson Theatre; Mary Poppins at the Ahmanson; A Ring in Brooklyn at NoHo Arts Center; and 12 Angry Men at the Sherry Theatre. Click here for all the latest New Theater Reviews, or you can find them after the jump.
Also check out this week's Stage Feature on Martin Crimp's The City, presented by Son of Semele Ensemble, and an election-season jukebox musical, How Obama Got His Groove Back, at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena
NEW THEATER REVIEWS, Scheduled for Publication August 23, 2012:
The cast-iron apron strings tying a Jewish mama to her nebbish son are given a true workout in writer-director Mark Troy's intermittently amusing if slight comedy. Middle-aged Jewish New York police officer Leo Melnick (Danny Lippin) loves his mama (Jill Gascoine) so much that he kidnaps her and locks her in his apartment building's basement, where he keeps her handcuffed and hand-feeds her hamentashen from Katz's deli. Into this idyllic scene, Leo brings his fiancée, Evelyn (Colette Freedman), who's understandably perplexed by the odd relationship -- but even more disgusted that her lover still lives with his mother. The play's description may make Troy's flatly written piece sound quirky and offbeat, but it is undermined by stale, one-joke dialogue and situations that lack the urgency and psychological depth suggested by the premise. As the mostly mute, ferocious, fire-and-latke breathing mama, Gascoine does the best work with the flimsy material, and it's a genuine pleasure to watch how, even as her son's captive, she uses her flashing eyes and snapping teeth to dominate all comers. Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Wed. & Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Aug. 26. (310) 477-2055, odysseytheatre.com. (Paul Birchall)
GO THE CITY
British Dramatist Martin Crimp's Pinter-esque examination of a literary translator, her marriage, and horrors lurking within and beyond us. Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through Sept. 23. (213) 351-3507, .sonofsemele.org.See Stage feature.
GO EPIC PROPORTIONS
Writers David Crane and Larry Coen's skewering of the movie business isn't remarkably witty or original, but done well it still can yield multiple laughs. In that respect, director Joe Ochman's staging scores a respectable B. Much of the humor coalesces around the endearing, flawlessly calibrated performance of Dagney Kerr. She plays Louise, a production assistant on a film shoot in which plot strands of Exodus, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, among others, are stirred together into one giant, illogical stew. Among the 3,400 extras Louise oversees are brothers Benny (Michael Miranda) and Phil (Anthony Marquez), both of whom soon succumb to her charms. Eventually, following a fateful accident involving the "burning bush," Phil becomes the movie's director and Benny and Louise become the stars. While some performances could be crisper, Kerr's nearly continuous onstage presence serves up a ready antidote each time the humor begins to lag. Marina Palmier is consistently entertaining as a serpentine "Queen of the Nile" and in other assorted roles, while Tina Zarro's costumes add edge to the farce. The tiny venue seems poorly suited for staging an epic, but to their credit, Ochman and company ably circumnavigate the limitations. Neo Ensemble Theatre at the Avery Schreiber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m.; thru Sept. 16. (323) 364-2670, neoensembletheatre.org. (Deborah Klugman)
GO THE FOOLS
In this brisk and good-natured take on Molière's Les Fâcheux, co-artistic directors Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie take on directing and adapting duties, respectively. It may provoke more smiles than laughs, but it has a charm that rarely flags. The young marquis Eraste (Zack Medway) loiters in the garden outside the home of his beloved, Orphise (Serena Dolinsky), attempting to finalize the secret arrangements for their elopement before her aunt (Rudie) can marry her off to a ill-matched suitor the next morning. Alas, but he is thwarted. Beset on all sides by a parade of ridiculous aristocrats, each demanding attention with his trivial narcissism, Eraste must stand idly by as Orphise's fate edges ever closer to being sealed. The judicious smattering of musical numbers is a smart and lively addition, though also occasionally a double-edged sword; although the cast is full of talented singers, not all possess voices capable of competing effectively with the boisterous synthesizers of the prerecorded soundtrack, and it is a shame when Rudie's clever lyrics are muffled. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.; through Sept. 30. (310) 394-9779, santamonicaplayhouse.com. (Mindy Farabee)
GO HOW OBAMA GOT HIS GROOVE BACK
Nicholas Zill and Derek Jeremiah Reid's jukebox musical about a weary U.S. prez who'd rather be doing his Otis Redding impersonation on American Idol than leading the free world. Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Oct. 7. (866) 811-4111, fremontcentretheatre.com. See Stage feature.
Anybody looking for deep characterizations or philosophic, literary inquiry need read no further: "Katana" translates as "sword," and that's exactly what director Ryuji Yamakita dishes out -- a heaping helping of delirious stage chanbara (Samurai sword action, to you) delivered with the slimmest pretext of a dramatic narrative. Writers Koji Tanaka and Misa Nagasaki stitch a survey of familiar samurai-cinema archetypes and genre tropes onto a vaguely Peckinpah-esque spine of adversarial male bonding and set it against the political violence of the bakumatsu, the civil strife between pro- and anti-Shogunate groups that ushered in the modern Meiji restoration. The story follows progressive but reluctant swordsman Shuzo (the fine Masa Kanome) and firebrand Shogunate reactionary Riki (a forceful Toshiya Agata), who temporarily set aside their differences to guide saintly young Saki (Kyoko Okazaki) to deliver a peace petition to the Shogun in Edo. Along the way, Shuzo and Riki battle knife-wielding prostitutes, face uncounted bandits and find true love in an all-female farming village. Choreographer Keiya Tabuchi's dazzling action sequences (featuring the spectacular acrobatics of swordswoman Mao Asou), a delightful comic turn by Shu Sakimoto and Yamakita's sure-handed direction round out an unlikely melodrama that plays like The Wizard of Oz meets Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai trilogy. The remaining performances are in Japanese. Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Aug. 26. (310) 828-7519, iki-e.com or morgan-wixson.org. (Bill Raden)
GO MARY POPPINS
When Bob Crowley's elaborate set is unlatched and drawn back to reveal the distraught home that soon will be whipped into ship-shape by Mary Poppins, it's hard not to wonder if the creative team is drawing a parallel between the magic-dusted Disney show and Ibsen's A Doll's House. After leaving her career in the theater, Mother is unfulfilled by having only domestic power; Father is consumed with his job at the bank; the entire household conspires to keep him "the sovereign." Unlike Ibsen's Nora, however, Mother has Mary Poppins (the unflappable Rachel Wallace) to incite change with her refreshing, decidedly alpha personality ("Oh, I like games!" she enthuses, before adding, "But I choose them."). But hey, it's also easy not to overanalyze and be just as swept away as your kids are by this sparkling, special effects-laden production. Mary not only works miracles with bratty children, cold marriages and stifled feminists, she also turns drab London parks into Day-Glo dance-offs and chimneysweeps into a badass tap-dancing army (show-stopping choreography by Matthew Bourne). If the goal was to reinforce Mary Poppins' mantra of "Anything can happen if you let it" with the magic of theater instead of Ibsen's grim realism, all the adults walking out with shining eyes and goofy grins confirm it worked. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; through Sept. 2. (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
GO A RING IN BROOKLYN: A FRICKIN' MUSICAL It's the 10-year reunion for the class of Brooklyn's FDR High School, and the past and present are about to collide. Gina (Gabrielle Wagner), Jenn (Jordan Kai Burnett) and the flashy class slut, Tracy (Anna Hanson), are only minutes into dancing, drinking and girly reminiscences when attentions turn to a promise ring given to Gina long ago on a "special night." But this piece of jewelry has been lost, so to speak, and returning it to its rightful owner becomes an obsession, wittingly or unwittingly, for everyone. Eric Dodson's book caroms back and forth between 1979 and 1989, telling the why and how of the ring and its importance in the lives of these classmates. It's a clever piece of storytelling (though slightly overwritten) that also includes some surprising plot twists. And it's not all about the gals. Gordy (a fine Mike Irizarry), Smitty (Mark Shunock), Ronny (Johnny Cannizzaro) and Tommy (Matt Valle) also are part of this humorous, improbable tale. The operative word here is fun. Dodson's lyrics and Alan Ross Fleishman's laid-back blend of jazz, disco and R&B music make for easy listening, and director Joshua Finkel's cast turn in solid performances. Doma Theatre and Academy for New Musical Theatre at the NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 2. (818) 506-8500, anmt.org. (Lovell Estell III)
PICK OF THE WEEK: SWEET STEINBECK
Take a trip back 60 or so years to a sweeter, gentler time, when alcoholic bums were jovial and kind and bordello madams had a heart of gold. Robb Derringer and Matt McKenzie (who also directs) have beautifully adapted novelist John Steinbeck's sequel to Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, into a three-act stage play with music. Steinbeck's early line about how "gossamer threads of steel" connect everyone in this small community is diligently played out in the adorable love story that ensues. Doc (Joe McGovern) returns to his Northern California beach town after World War II to resume his marine biology experiments. Suzy (Lela Loren) is a fresh-off-the-bus cutie who is not cut out for working at Fauna's brothel/finishing school. The motley crew of locals conspires to repay Doc's enduring kindness with two separate schemes. Musical director London Shover shines playing bluesy steel-stringed guitar, while other colorful characters intermittently accompany him on flute, harmonica and muted trumpet. Performances are all pitched a little larger than life, but somehow it works. A highlight is a spirited swing dance number. The writers collaboratively weave comedy, humanity and insight into a delightful tale that is true to Steinbeck's original. Chuck Erven's authentically cluttered set and Audrey Eisner's period costumes are perfect. Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Sept. 30. (310) 822-8392, pacificresidenttheatre.com (Pauline Adamek)
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GO 12 ANGRY MEN
This jury-room melodrama by Reginald Rose has had an extraordinary shelf life. Appearing first as a play on TV, it went on to become a major film and a successful Broadway stage play that's frequently revived. This production, by director Stephanie Alkazian, is modest and bare-bones, but she has assembled an able cast for a taut, engrossing rendition. A young boy, a member of an unspecified minority, has been tried for the murder of his father, and now the jury must decide if he's innocent or guilty. The jurors are tired and just want to go home, and their first vote is 11-to-1 for a guilty verdict. The one holdout (Jim Miller) is not sure the case has been proven and defies the entrenched racism, prejudices and personal grudges of fellow jurors to fight for acquittal. Mike Davies shines as Juror 9, whose bumbling exterior hides a man of strength and conviction. Tom Lowell persuades as Juror 3, whose attitude is shaped by his stormy relations with his own estranged son. And Barry Agin blusters convincingly as Juror 10, whose blatant racism antagonizes those he attempts to persuade. Ghost Players Theatre Co. at the Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; call for schedule. (310) 210-9143, theghostplayers.net. (Neal Weaver)
THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE Theatricum Botanicum is seamlessly transformed into the moors of Scotland for this dark, poetic play. The 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 claimed the lives of all passengers, the crew and about a dozen people on the ground. Structured loosely as a Greek tragedy -- prologue, chorus and catharsis are clearly present, but a traditional tragic hero is absent -- the story centers on an event in which a group of local women wash the victims' clothing to comfort the grieving families. As the women protest the U.S. government's plan to burn the clothing, Madeline Livingston (Susan Angelo) arrives from New Jersey to wander the hills in a manic search for her son's remains. Though Theatricum's production is magically staged with little effort (the night I went, a hooting owl and chirping crickets served as secondary chorus, signaling the mysteries of nature and death), the ensemble's acting is over-the-top across the board, a misstep that tramples authenticity and makes a relentless, clownish spectacle of the profoundly personal grieving process. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; in rep; call for schedule; through Sept. 24. (310) 455-3723, theatricum.com. (Amy Lyons)