GO  BABY IT’S YOU Florence Greenberg (Meeghan Holaway) was a restless Passaic housewife with two nearly grown kids (Suzanne Petrela and Adam Irizarry) and a husband (Barry Pearl) resentful of her love for newfangled rock & roll. (When Bernie tells his missus, “Yakkity yak — don’t talk back,” he’s serious.) Flo left to create Scepter Records, taking with her four local girls whom she shaped into the Shirelles, the original queens of the hop. Floyd Mutrux’s splashy doo-wop, jukebox musical tracks the naive but strong-willed exec as she discovers the brief glories of being on top of the charts with a new man at her side, prideful lyricist and producer Luther Dixon (Allan Louis). Mutrux and co-writer Colin Escott see this as a story about suits, not singers: The Shirelles (Berlando Drake, Erica Ash, Paulette Ivory and Crystal Starr Knighton, all excellent) get stage time but no individuality except for Drake’s Shirley, who makes a play for Luther. But everything is tangential to the music. If the second act didn’t start with an endless but excellent cabaret of oldies by composers from Ron Isley to Lesley Gore, there’d be more plot and less applause. From the corner of the stage, a DJ named Jocko (Geno Henderson) interrupts to set the year, and the production is as much about a nostalgic nod to the era of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as it is about the story of an outsider building her kingdom. (Ironically, the least-familiar song is also the best, “The Dark End of the Street,” later covered by everyone from Dolly Parton to Frank Black.) While Flo and her teen queens deserve more development, the evening closes with a grace note, as the five ladies sing together in harmony, knowing that even if they didn’t shake up the world, they seized their own destinies. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through December 13. (626) 356-PLAY. (Amy Nicholson)

CARBON BLACK Nicknamed Inky, Carbon Black (Michael Drummond) is a 13-year-old who serves as caretaker to his disturbed, agoraphobic mother, Sylvie (Sheila Tousey). Though patient and reliable, he’s grown increasingly restless of late, especially after witnessing — or so he tells skeptical adults — the horrific murder of a neighborhood child. Inky’s escalating truancy brings him to the attention of the school authorities, particularly his Native-American school counselor, Lisa Yellowtree (Tonantzin Carmelo), who visits the home and offers a helping hand, only to be met with hostile anger from the increasingly wigged-out Sylvie. Written by Terry Gomez, the play exhibits the elements of a promising after-school special: a crossroads, a troubled mom, a caring outsider — and more than one viable social message. Unfortunately the script too often either lags or lapses into discomfiting melodrama, as when the assistant principal (Stephan Wolfert) assails Inky, as well as the counselor, with the malevolence of a Dickensian villain. (If this is humor, as another critic has reported, it doesn’t work for me.) Under Randy Reinholz’s direction, Tousey’s performance never goes beyond displaying the outer accoutrements of mental illness. Some of the staging — Sylvie wrapping herself in curtains to hide — seems silly and excessive. Drummond is persuasive in quiet moments, less so when the stakes rise. Within the ensemble, Carmelo fares best. Designer Susan Baker Scharpf’s set and R. Craig Wolf’s accomplished lighting design contribute to the professional polish. Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 22. (323) 667-2000. A Native Voices production. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  CARNIVAL KNOWLEDGE The two words that come to mind in describing this one-woman show by Naomi Grossman are colorful and physical. The former hits you as you enter the theater and are treated to the circus-tent backdrop festooned with posters that would make P.T. Barnum proud (courtesy of designers Steven K. Barnett and April Lawrence). The latter becomes quickly evident in Grossman’s storytelling style, beginning with a lively game of “Whack-a-Weenie” in which she takes a mallet to male members masquerading as moles (don’t bring the kids). Though Grossman has the air of a wide-eyed ingénué, her contortionism along with the dirty details of nine of her dates — from the stock boy at Trader Joe’s, to her yoga instructor, to Argentine soccer players (in the plural) — prove otherwise. But all is not wine and roses in this comic carnal romp, especially toward the end, when she tackles the darker side of love. Richard Embardo’s efficient direction, along with Christopher Ash’s nimble lighting and Kelley Rodgers’ whimsical soundtrack, help Grossman quickly move between stories as she darts about the stage, putting to good use the fungible, Willy Wonka–hued set pieces. While her characters are not as sharply drawn as they could be, her energy, impressive physicality and the occasionally clever pun in the writing carry the piece. Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd.; Sun., 7 p.m. (no perf Nov. 29); through December 13. (323) 930-1804. A Red Meat Entertainment Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)


THE GLORY OF LIVING The title of Rebecca Gilman’s play is brutally ironic, and there’s little glory in the tale she tells. Lisa (Kate Huffman), the daughter of a hard-drinking prostitute (Addie Daddio) in the rural South, has no sense of self-worth. At 15, she elopes with ruthless car thief and jailbird Clint (Brett Aune). He uses her to procure girls for him — and to kill them when he’s done with them. She does terrible things, simply because Clint tells her she must, and she lacks the will to resist. But she has enough conscience to report the murders to the police. Once arrested, she can’t even mount a defense of her own life, and when she’s convicted, her only concern is that she has disappointed her defense attorney. It’s hard to imagine a more devastating portrait of anomie and shattered ego, acted with great conviction by Huffman, Aune and a fine supporting cast. Gilman’s purpose is harder to grasp. Is this an exercise in depravity, or a portrait of a hopelessly damaged girl, or is she making a moral and political point? This production, directed by Alice Ensor and Joe Koonce, doesn’t tell us. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through November 21. Produced by Athena Theatre. (323) 230-7261, AthenaTheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)

LANDSCAPING THE DEN OF SAINTS Somewhere in writer-director Jacob Smith’s meandering muddle of a carpe diem sitcom, there lies a tautly twisted, Buñuelian comedy of manners just crying to be set free. Unfortunately, finding it means first slogging through a particularly plodding Act 1 in which too much pointless exposition and excessively pedestrian dialogue threaten to ground Smith’s narrative before it can take flight. At 33, Jason Jones (Jim Martyka) is just another aging waiter and actor-writer wannabe, spinning his wheels in a generic Hollywood eatery for $8 an hour plus tips. With his one critical acting success far behind him and his writing credits little more than face-saving braggadocio, Jason’s prospects for happiness take their deepest hit when his girlfriend (Liesl Jackson) relocates for a dream job in Paris. All that changes when Jason waits on Bruce Hill (an inspired Sean Fitzgerald), a maniacal, coke-sniffing, 65-year-old (courtesy of Annie Wolf’s fine makeup) attorney who offers Jason $100,000 to quit his job and ghostwrite Bruce’s autobiography. The ensuing “writing” sessions play out as a hilarious cross between My Dinner With Andre and The Lost Weekend, as Bruce reveals himself to be an unapologetic abuser of every drug in the known pharmacopoeia, and each man goads the other into stripping away his paralyzing illusions. Martyka’s exasperated straight man is a perfectly modulated delight, and Fitzgerald’s demented riff on Burt Reynolds may be the year’s best comedy performance that nobody will see. Avery Schreiber Theater, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through November 22. (818) 849-4039. A Theatre Unleashed production. (Bill Raden)

GO  MARY POPPINS The riveting theatricality of Bob Crowley’s production design, climaxing in chimney sweep Bert (Gavin Lee) soft-shoeing straight up, then upside down across the proscenium arch, and culminating in a showstopping umbrella flight over the audience by the famous titular nanny, produces an excitement that far outshines the limited value intrinsic in much of the musical’s written material. Likewise the sublime showmanship of choreographer Matthew Bourne and stage director Richard Eyre hides the flaws in Julian Fellowes’ disjointed script and new music by George Stiles and Anthony Drew. Unlike most of Disney’s Broadway smashes that producer Thomas Schumacher has magically transformed from animated film to stage, this is a hybrid between Disney’s 1964 movie masterpiece, whose fun and fanciful score by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman still holds up, and the operetta gleaned from the original novel (with rights held by the Cameron Mackintosh team). The two styles battle one another for dominance, and neither wins. Most of the film’s story lines are banished in favor of closer adaptation of the P.L. Travers books with the familiar songs wedged into the scenes, while the new songs more closely fit the story but lack spark. Nevertheless the production is an audience pleaser, with demonstrable talent on or off the stage. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Feb. 7. (213) 628-2772. Presented by Center Theatre Group, Disney Theatricals and Cameron Mackintosh. (Tom Provenzano)

GO  NOISES OFF There are many stars in Geoff Elliott’s accomplished staging of Michael Frayn’s oft-produced backstage farce, but the ones that shine brightest may be the stagehands, who, between acts, hand-swivel Adam Lillibridge’s elaborate, two-tiered living room set — which represents the multitiered living room set of a play within the play, being performed somewhere in the British provinces — inside out, so that the faux living room transforms into backstage directly behind the set, where the actors await their entrances. This is no easy feat, as the set almost touches the theater ceiling, but on opening night, they pulled it off in less than 12 minutes, earning a round of applause from those standing by to watch. Frayn’s farce is well-known by now — a theater production of a farce on the rails, with a world-weary director (Elliott) who’s more than ready to move on to his next production, Richard III; a needy cast, one of whom (Stephen Rockwell) keeps insisting on psychological explanations for what’s obviously a series of gags; another (Emily Kosloski, playing a dim-witted sex bomb) who keeps losing her contact lenses; and an elderly resident alcoholic (Apollo Dukakis) who creates dramatic tension from the question of whether or not he’ll even show up to make his entrance. As the play-within-the-play continues its tour, in a production that grows increasingly chaotic, the ineptitude is compounded by sexual dalliances among director, cast and crew, which leave a trail of bruised feelings. Elliott’s touch is both gentle and conservative, sidestepping many low-comedy sex gags that have accompanied other productions. It is nonetheless skillfully rendered, with lovely performances also by Deborah Strang, Mikael Salazar, Lenne Klingaman, Jill Hill and Shaun Anthony. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep, call for schedule; through December 20. (818) 240-0910, ext. 1. (Steven Leigh Morris)


PO BOY TANGO In Kenneth Lin’s ambitious but uninspiring script, Taiwanese immigrant Richie Po (Dennis Dun) calls upon an African-American woman named Gloria B (Esther Scott) to help him resurrect his deceased mother’s recipes. The occasion is his daughter’s wedding; the two had became acquainted years ago, after Gloria hS helped nurse his daughter as she battled cancer. For guidance, they rely on videotapes sent by Mama Po (Jeanne Sakata) to her son — tapes about her cooking in which she also reminisces on Richie’s childhood. The play aims to illustrate how food — nourishing the spirit, as well as the body — can bridge the gaps among individuals from vastly different backgrounds. Unfortunately, too much of the dialogue consists of “remember when” chitchat that carries little dramatic imperative. Toward the end, a fierce argument concerning race finally erupts after an angry Gloria accuses Richie of disrespecting her, but the conflict seems forced. Likewise, although Mama’s narrative includes a single compelling incident, it’s mostly quotidian detail from which a clear portrait of the past fails to emerge. The play is directed by Oanh Nguyen; some production decisions do little to augment its underachieved intentions. While Nathan Wang’s original music is a plus, designer Shaun L. Motley’s sterile set underscores the material’s enervated dynamic. A play that emphasizes the miracle properties of broth should bring some to the stage. East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 6. (213) 625-7000. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  THE RIVER NIGER Joseph Walker was among a handful of black playwrights who came to prominence during the civil rights era and won acclaim for their dramas about the black experience in America. This is a solid, spirited revival of his 1974 Tony Award–winning drama about a family tested by a critical moment of reckoning. The action unfolds in the Harlem residence of Johnny Williams (a dynamic performance by Ben Guillory), a housepainter who writes poetry and whose love for his long-suffering wife, Mattie (Margaret Avery), is matched only by his love of the bottle. The two are anxiously anticipating the arrival of their son Jeff (Dane Diamond), who they believe is returning as a successful U.S. Air Force navigator. But his eventual return instead brings disappointment and trouble. Adding to the crisis are Mattie’s cancer diagnosis and the sudden appearance of four of Jeff’s old buddies, who are now members of a militant black revolutionary group. This is essentially a dated melodrama but one that nevertheless holds our attention and has fruitful poignancy because of the well-sketched, robust humanity of the characters. Director Dwain Perry could do better with more rigorous pacing. Cast performances are uniformly good, particularly Alex Morris, who is superb as Dr. Dudley Stanton. Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 20. (213) 489-0994. (Lovell Estell III)

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