Evita at the Gem Theater

An Enormous Bit of Star Quality

By Tom Titus

Mentioning the words “Evita” and “Adriana Sanchez” in the same breath should be sufficient motivation to send local theatergoers streaming toward Garden Grove’s Gem Theater where the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is enjoying a superb revival.

The first lady of Orange County musical theater surpasses her past successes with a stunning portrayal that scores as highly in emotional gravitas as it does musically. It is, quite simply Sanchez’s best work in many years of outstanding stage performances.

Sanchez beautifully brings out the fiery ambition that drove Eva Duarte from the rural slums of Argentina (“A Little Touch of Star Quality”) to the presidential palace where, as Eva Peron, she was venerated by hordes of working-class Argentines. It was an abbreviated reign since Eva succumbed to cancer at the age of 33.

The Gem rendition — directed by One More Productions artistic director Damien Lorton, who also serves as musical director – has but three primary characters, but a huge fourth emerges in the form of the nameless ensemble which functions as a skillfully drilled unit under the guidance of choreographer Shauna Bradford-Martinez.

Many Evitas have come and gone over the years (most recently this season at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts), but few, professional or amateur, can match the fierce determination Andriana Sanchez brings to the character as she scratches and claws her way out of poverty and uses romance as a checkerboard to advance her ambitions jump by jump. Her dynamic dramatic talent almost makes one forget the haunting power of her voice when she raises it in song.

Matching her in intensity is her primary antagonist, Che (who may or may not represent the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevera; opinions differ). Danny Diaz (the Gem’s box office manager) delivers a powerful performance as this angry everyman who challenges Evita at every turn. Their tense waltz together as they warily size each other up is a high point of the show.

One might imagine Sanchez has a contract dictating that Christopher Peduzzi appear opposite her – this is their eighth show together. Peduzzi assumes a regal bearing as Juan Peron, the mighty general who becomes Argentina’s president and devotes himself to Eva’s well being. It’s a strong, steadfast interpretation.

Jon Korbonski (Magaldi) and Olivia Rybus (Peron’s mistress) acquit themselves admirably in their featured roles, then join the splendid ensemble which represents Argentina’s army, its upper-class snobs and the citizenry in general. Seldom has a chorus functioned with such impressive unity.

“Evita” continues at the Gem (12852 Main St., Garden Grove) Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until July 20. Reservations may be obtained by calling the theater at (714) 741-9550, ext. 225.

“All My Sons” by ACTC at Vanguard

By Tom Titus

“Death of a Salesman” notwithstanding, there is a wholly legitimate argument to be made for “All My Sons” to be recognized as Arthur Miller’s finest literary achievement – particularly when produced as brilliantly as the current revival by the American Coast Theater Company at Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University.

Had this postwar drama been unsuccessful, following Miller’s failed first effort, there probably would have been no “Salesman” — or “A View From the Bridge” or “The Price,” for that matter. Thankfully, audiences in 1947,  just two years after World War II ended, embraced this powerful and emotionally involving drama.

Incisively directed by Kevin Slay, “All My Sons” begins as a peaceful, happy occasion in the back yard of munitions factory owner Joe Keller, then gradually deepens into accusation, confrontation and, ultimately, tragedy. It’s a challenging project for the ACTC actors, who attack the play like hungry wolves, baring their emotional teeth.

There are at least four dynamic performances here, with center stage skillfully occupied by Paul Eggington as Joe, who was accused but exonerated of supplying faulty cylinder heads to the Army Air Force which resulted in 22 pilots’ deaths. His partner was convicted and remains incarcerated.

Eggington maintains his forced upbeat attitude throughout most of the production, but turns sullen and defensive as the truth about his involvement surfaces. His mood swings are rampant, yet he remains adamant about his innocence until the ultimate soul-shattering confrontation. And as if this assignment weren’t enough, Eggington also designed the fine-looking set as the show’s technical director.

As his perilously moody wife Kate — who clings to the belief that one of her sons, missing in action for three years, ultimately will return – Susan K. Berkompas (the founding mother of ACTC) brings a scary quality of desperation to her excellent performance.  Upon learning that her surviving son intends to marry the MIA son’s girlfriend, her surface calm erupts into fear and panic.

The show’s finest performance, however, comes from James McHale as Chris Keller, who survived the war and has fallen in love with Ann — who was not only his missing brother Larry’s intended bride but is the daughter of Joe’s imprisoned partner. McHale exudes strength and conviction in large quantities, heightened immeasurably with the news of his beloved father’s profit-motivated culpability.

Kristi Pruett displays both sweetness and determination as Ann, who’s long since given up on the idea of Larry’s coming home and who emphatically returns Chris’ feelings for her. Pruett’s introduction of a damning letter late in the play is a devastating moment for all concerned.

Her brother George – who, like Ann, had severed all communication with their father until that particular day – is splendidly interpreted by Rene Scheys as a wounded warrior bearing ill will toward Joe and, by extension, his family. Scheys excels at squelching his inner demons out of respect for Kate in a tension-laced family get-together.

Supporting performances also are quite effective. Dwayne Strivens is solid as the Kellers’ doctor neighbor, while Deborah Marley breaks tensions as his chatty wife. Brandon Arias is fine as a goofy astrology buff, backed up by Anna De La Cour as his spouse, while young Max Salinger adds a light tough as the neighborhood kid who worships Joe as a “sheriff.”

“All My Sons” is a superb study in emotional interaction under nearly the worst possible circumstances – and (in this corner anyway) the finest, most viscerally affecting drama ever conceived by the late, great Arthur Miller. Its production by ACTC at Vanguard’s Lyceum Theater is a masterful revival.

Performances continue through June 7 with curtain Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. And Sundays at 2 p.m. Reservations and ticket information are available at (714) 619-6424 or online at http://www.ACTCtickets.com.

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The Women

“The Women” Overstay Their Welcome

By Tom Titus

Whatever you may think of “The Women,” Claire Booth Luce’s 1936 all-female ensemble comedy, you must admit it has staying power. After being filmed in 1939, it was revived twice on Broadway in 1973 and 2001 before another movie version in 2008.

Currently, the show is being staged at the Westminster Community Theater in a three-hour production that’s about an hour too long. There are gems to be mined in this vintage comedy, but finding them requires some time-consuming effort.

Fidelity, or lack of it, is the overall theme of this chat fest in which 16 actresses, some playing multiple roles, dissect their husbands (who aren’t seen), their rivals and each other. Societal references are, quite naturally, from the mid-1930s, and any modernization would be verboten.

The central figure is one Mary Haines (Jamie Sowers), who appears to be ensconced in a perfect marriage – until her friends’ claws come out and expose the fact that Mary’s hubby has a wandering eye. As time goes on (and on), other ladies in the company find their marriages crumbling as well.

The role of Mary is written as bland on bland, and Sowers accentuates it with her one-dimensional portrayal. Her best moments are in loving scenes with her sweet little daughter (Jacquelyn Desloge), but she manages to thrust an exclamation point on her character before the final fadeout.

Earning top honors for a lusty, razor-witted performance is Elizabeth Desloge, who not only one-ups her comrades verbally but, in one instance, physically as well in a rousing cat fight. Desloge plays Sylvia, one of Mary’s close friends, who delights in upsetting marital applecarts until her own is dislodged.

As the feline vixen who uncouples both Mary and Sylvia, Tawney Lewis also is excellent, though her actions as a black woman in the mid-Thirties are somewhat questionable.  Megan Tice is a bright spot as the young bride Peggy.

Also impressive are Monica Valladares as another bridge-playing buddy who’s perennially pregnant and Elaine Domino as an aging countess (by marriage) turned into a cowgirl (by circumstance).

Two veteran actresses with hundreds of stage credits between them – Laurie Robbins and Beth Titus – draw supernumerary duty with three roles apiece, heightening the comedy factor. Toni Beckman is fine as Mary’s placid mother, while Tanya Court doubles neatly as a titled model and a femme fatale.

Directed by Brandon Ferruccio, who also designed the multi-set show,  “The Women” functions as a theater history lesson and an opportunity for a number of actresses to show their stuff. They’d show it to greater advantage had the script been excised by about one-third.

“The Women” plays weekends through May 31 with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Westminster Community Theater, 7272 Maple St., Westminster. Call (714) 893-8626) for further information and reservations.

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“Rest”

By Tom Titus

    It’s hard to imagine a more depressing setting for a play than a “retirement” home in Idaho that is about to be closed down and where its inhabitants are just marking time in their waning lives while waiting for the blizzard to diminish.
    Yet the playwright, Samuel D. Hunter, and his director, Martin Benson — who teamed on the riveting, offbeat drama “The Whale” last season — have combined to spin this apparent dramatic straw into theatrical gold with “Rest,” now taking the stage in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory.
    Born and raised in Idaho, Hunter returns to his roots for most of his dramatic inspiration, focusing on quirky yet otherwise very ordinary characters in even more unexciting situations and makes them come indelibly alive, much like Horton Foote did with his Southern creations and William Inge accomplished with America’s heartland.
    In “Rest,” the focus is on a convalescent home, its employees and its three patients, one of whom who turns up missing midway through the first act. After intermission, the mystery is solved and an even more crucial development arises. To elaborate would require a spoiler alert.
    The centerpiece of this captivating but off-center situation is Etta, an elderly resident and the wife of the missing oldster. Lynn Milgrim dominates this scenario, as she did at SCR in years past in “The Heiress,” “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Death of a Salesman” and others. Her richly layered performance is the top banana in a most impressive bunch.
    The two junior caretakers of the establishment are nicely delineated by Libby West and Sue Cremin. West is strong as the slightly superior member of the pair, while Cremin excels as her junior partner, who is carrying West’s child as a surrogate in a plot element that seems merely tacked on to the primary story. More should be developed with this subplot or it should be simply discarded, and the same goes for an offhand piece of gossip about West’s husband.
    As the painfully inept manager of the rest home, Rob Nagle skillfully underscores his character’s inefficiency as he attempts to assert his flagging authority and unveils his more feminine side. Wyatt Fenner as the new, temporary cook — and a scarily religious fanatic — has some over-the-top moments threatening to upset the play’s delicate balance.
    It’s always good to see SCR founding actors Richard Doyle and Hal Landon Jr. back on stage and at the top of their game even after a half-century of performances. Doyle has a brief but compelling sequence as the old fellow who goes missing, while Landon solidly enacts the taciturn patient, a retired night watchman, upon whose character the plot takes a significant turn.
    The seediness of the overly used retirement home is well illustrated in its well-worn set design by John Iacovelli. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes are fitting for such a back-country atmosphere.
    With “Rest,” playwright Hunter further establishes himself as a theatrical voice of paramount importance. His offbeat collection of characters has found a welcome home at South Coast Repertory.

(this review originally was published in the Daily Pilot)

 

Dividing the Estate

Family Divided in Newport’s “Estate”

By Tom Titus

    Horton Foote wrote over 100 plays during his nearly 93 years of creativity, many of which have been produced by local theaters. One that’s been absent from our stages, however, is “Dividing the Estate,” a family-themed dramatic comedy from the late 1980s which only now has surfaced at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

    This play, like much of Foote’s Southern-fried creations, is an acquired taste, but playgoers probably will acquire it before the lights dim on its first act. After that point, it’s just fun to watch the several members of a Texas family battle greedily for the upper hand in a quest for proceeds and property.

    Initially, the Gordons are a fairly convivial clan, sharing a large Texas estate presided over by the aging matriarch Stella (Nancy Larner) and also housing her grown children, Lucille (Sharyn Case), Lewis (Sean Singer) and her grandson, known only as “Son” (Sean Sellers), as well as assorted servants.

    In time another heiress arrives, daughter Mary Jo (Della Lisi), along with her ineffectual husband Bob (Larry Greagan) and their attractive teen daughters (Whitney Ellis and Natalie Swinford), who frequently are mistaken for one another. Add to this mix Son’s schoolteacher fiancee Pauline (Chiara Issa) and an ancient family retainer Doug (J.L.T. Williams), a cook (Gwen Woolddridge) and her helper Cathleen (Aili Jiaravanant) and you’ve got quite a contentious household.

    Director Brian Page stirs this concoction effectively, pressing the comedic buttons when required to elaborate on the quirkiness of one character of another. As two of them pass away unexpectedly, the others converge to sniff out their advantage should the estate be divided.

    It’s a splendid ensemble, but one performer emerges memorably – Lisi’s avaricious desperation as the sister, transplanted to Houston, who looks down on the others as her own financial position is diminishing. Her “What about me?” attitude and her impatient finger drumming as other issues are discussed amplify this excellent performance.

    In contrast, Case presents a solid, if more undramatic, character who’s adapted to her life on the estate, joining Sellers – who has three years of college behind him – in managing the family finances. Sellers, a calm young widower, seems the most “normal” character of the bunch and a sense of calm amid the familial storm.

    He’s contrasted by his uncle Lewis, a role beautifully executed by Singer as a heavy drinking schemer seeking money from the estate to, as he puts it, save his life (by placating the angry father of his young ladyfriend). Issa brightens the picture as Son’s fiancee, a sparkling presence in the midst of continual turmoil.

    Larner also impresses as the iron-willed grandmother sternly opposing the property sale. Greagan is less effective as Lisi’s real estate agent husband who argues for it, while Williams (a white actor playing a servant’s role originally written for an African-American) displays moments of depth and clarity amid his character’s normal befuddlement.

    Ellis and Swinford shine as Lisi’s self-centered daughters, also dividing the spoils in their minds. Jaspre Dixon, who arrives late in the play as Singer’s squeeze, offers a dimly lit defining moment, while Wooldridge and Jiaravanant function believably as the kitchen staff.

    Andrew Otero’s old-house setting, with curtains blending into the wallpaper, is admirable, as are the costume creations of Claudia Berglund and Joni Stockinger. Likewise, Mitch Atkins’ lighting and Page’s sound design blend well in the proceedings.

    Horton Foote was a past master of mining artistic gold from the conflicts of families, particularly Southern ones. The mixture spotlighted in “Dividing the Estate” combines drama and comedy to high effect at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

IF YOU GO:

WHAT: “Dividing the Estate”
WHERE: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach
WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., weekend matinees at 2 p.m. until April 27
COST: $12
CALL: (949) 631-0288

(this review originally appeared in the Daily Pilot)

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Emmes, Benson Left Their Mark onSCR

Emmes, Benson left their mark on SCR

By Tom Titus

Theater companies traditionally honor individuals who have been highly instrumental in their success by naming a performing facility for them, as UC Irvine did a few years ago when it rechristened its Studio Theater the Robert Cohen Theater to honor Cohen’s half century of teaching and directing at UCI.

South Coast Repertory has two theaters – the Segerstrom Stage and the Julianne Argyros Stage, celebrating two benefactors who provided enormous monetary support. SCR also honored a third financial backer by naming the entire two-theater edifice the Folino Theater Center.

Paul Folino, the retired chairman and CEO of Emulex, was the SCR board president who led the theater’s “Next Stage” campaign to greatly expand the theater complex and support educational and artistic programs. His donation of $10 million was, at the time, the largest individual gift to a regional theater.

But Folino recently had a change of heart. He suggested that SCR remove his name from the complex and rename it for the two visionaries who created South Coast Repertory back in 1964 – artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson.

So it was that, on a recent evening, Folino, Emmes and Benson got together and unveiled the lettering on the face of the theater near the administration office which now reads “David Emmes/Martin Benson Theater Center.”

“I wanted to thank David and Martin by renaming this theater center so that people will remember not only their amazing accomplishments over the last 50 years at SCR, but the legacy they have created that will serve this community for decades to come,” Folino declared. “These two men truly are legends in repertory theater history.”

Emmes and Benson, now in their 70s, turned over the company’s reins a few years ago to Marc Masterson, but remain aligned with SCR, sharing the title of “founding artistic directors” and each staging a show every season.

Needless to say, the effect of the name change on the two pioneers was deep and heartfelt.

“Seeing our names on the theater was an infinitely more profound personal experience than I had imagined,” Emmes remarked. “It also reminded me of how fortunate we were to have launched our amazing creative odyssey in Orange County.”

Benson echoed his partner’s sentiments. “It has means far more to me than I thought,” he said. “There is in it a sense of permanence, which is the opposite of the transitory nature of theater itself.”

Their legacy is enormous. Under their leadership South Coast Repertory has received honors for artistic excellence, including a Tony award for regional theater in 1988 and 87 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards. Two SCR-developed works – “Wit” by Margaret Edison and “Rabbit Hole” by David Lindsay-Abaire” – have earned Pulitzer Prizes in 1999 and 2007, respectively, while another eight were named Pulitzer finalists.

David Emmes and Martin Benson have given Orange County audiences over a half century of premium-quality theater. That their names now grace the SCR theater complex insures that future generations of local theatergoers will be aware of their enormous contributions to the birth and development of South Coast Repertory.

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The Children’s Hour

“Children’s Hour” Still Powerful at NTAC

By Tom Titus

Lillian Hellman’s first successful play – written in 1934 – was “The Children’s Hour,” which knocked Broadway back on its heels and ran for over two years. Eighty years later, it’s still a powerful piece of theater when cast with superior talent as it is at the Newport Theater Arts Center.

This current revival is replete with standout performances, especially those of the two schoolteachers falsely accused of being lesbian lovers. But playgoers will leave the theater talking about a petite, 12-year-old actress who turns in a brilliant performance as their accuser .

That would be Emma Bradley, about whom more certainly will be heard in the future. Her captivating performance as Mary Tilford, a little girl you love to hate, borders on brilliance, both in its power and its nuance, under the meticulous direction of Kevin Slay. It’s about time someone revived “The Bad Seed” to showcase this young lady’s talents.

As the teachers whose lives are ruined by this hateful little brat, Amanda Zarr and Rachel Lockhart are a standout pair whose interpretive powers are put to the test in two demanding assignments. Zarr portrays Karen Wright, who’s engaged to the town doctor (Christopher Geer) and finds both her personal and professional worlds shattered by her accuser’s lies.

Lockhart is equally strong as Martha Dobie, who suffers even deeper damage to her psyche, a plot element that doesn’t surface until nearly the end of the play. Together, they convey agonizing heartache, perhaps a bit melodramatic for today’s audiences, but the time portrayed is 1934, the year “Children’s Hour” was written.

Veteran local actress Teri Ciranna, long absent from the NTAC stage, returns with a flourish as Martha’s overly dramatic aunt Lily, an actress who’s constantly “on stage,” even when assisting young girls in a play rehearsal. Given her profession, as well as the time period, her performance is definitely on target.

As the grandmother of Bradley’s character, a dowager who wields a powerful influence over the school, Judy Jones is a bit hesitant in her performance, but generally quite effective. Geer’s young doctor exhibits considerable stage power as he endeavors to ferret out the truth and save his relationship with Zarr’s character.

Another student caught in Mary’s web is Rosalie (Kelsey Arnold), who unwillingly aids in the teachers’ destruction. Arnold successfully projects her fear of the smaller Bradley in an emotionally demanding segment.

Director Slay has created a chilling atmosphere, reinforced by his ensemble players cast as fellow students. They include Mia El-Bayar, Hanna Jarvis, Kaylin Omo, Diana Tran and Savannah Young. Naomi Murden scores quite well as the no-nonsense maid to Jones’ character, while David Soukenik is fine in a one-shot appearance as a grocery boy.

Andrew Otero’s dual setting fills the bill nicely, reflecting the penury of the Depression-era period. Costumes, by Claudia Berglund and Mary DePaoli, are impressive as well.

Melodramatic? Overlong? Guilty on both counts, but quite acceptable when one considers that eight decades have passed since “The Children’s Hour” was written. It’s a peek into theatrical history written large at the Newport Theater Arts Center, where it will play through Feb. 23. Reservations are taken at (949) 631-0288.

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