Quite a “Few Good Men” in Westminster

By Tom Titus

When playgoers arrive at the Westminster Community Playhouse to see “A Few Good Men,” most of them probably will carry memories of the brilliant 1992 movie version, which culminated in an incendiary clash between stars Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson.

Those images quickly fade as a solid and substantial Westminster cast tackles Aaron Sorkin’s military drama, skillfully orchestrated by director Lenore Stjerne. We all know the “big scene” is coming but we savor the pungent moments leading up to it.

Sorkin’s powerful yet highly literate story focuses on a brash young Navy lieutenant, a neophyte in the courtroom, striving to defend two marines facing murder charges for giving another marine a fatal “Code Red” disciplinary action. Were they “just following orders,” and if so, does that really justify their conduct in the court-martial?

At Westminster, some exceptional performances emerge, particularly that of the snide and belligerent Marine Corps colonel who oversees the guardians of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Jeff June brings an authoritarian military bearing (and a Kirk Douglas chin) to his superior interpretation.

As the David to June’s hulking Goliath, Kevin Stark appears appropriately overmatched, but gains traction as the play progresses. Occasionally uneven in his delivery, Stark prevails despite bearing the physical appearance of a naïve teen-age boy.

Enacting the burr under Stark’s saddle is his female partner on the defense team, played with sardonic vitriol by Michelle Pederson. Anthony Baratta rounds out the triumvirate as a mild-mannered – to a point – legal assistant.

The rock-solid, by-the-book lance corporal facing murder charges is brilliantly interpreted by Ahmed Brooks. His servile PFC companion is well played by Jesse Ornelas.

Jonah Snyder has some effective moments as the training lieutenant composed of equal measures of Marine Corps propaganda and religious nut jobbery, though his enthusiasm occasionally muddles his projection. Brian McFadden is excellent as the prosecutor who’s also a buddy and softball rival of Stark’s defense counsel.

A few more good men in the Westminster cast are Michael Pierce as a JAG captain, Randy Calcetas as June’s uneasy subordinate at Gitmo, Richard DeVicaris as the Marines’ compromised doctor and Dave Skinner as the court-martial judge.

A few more weeks remain to catch “A Few Good Men” at the Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St., Westminster. It runs weekends (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.) through April 24 and reservations are being taken at (714) 893-8626.

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A Dozen “Funny Girls” at the Gem

A Dozen “Funny Girls” at the Gem

By Tom Titus

Say you’re directing a revival of “Funny Girl” and you’ve got the best singer/actress in Orange County available to play Fanny Brice. Do you round up 11 other ladies to share the leading role?

If you’re Damien Lorton, that’s exactly what you do. In the concert version of the biographical musical, now playing in an abbreviated two-weekend engagement at Garden Grove’s Gem Theater, there are, indeed, a dozen Fannies, each garbed in a bright red gown.

Lorton’s concept is interesting, and it works, sort of. But one still wishes that the inimitable Adriana Sanchez – who occupies the final 10 minutes and earns roaring applause for her rendering of “The Music That Makes Me Dance” – were portraying the “greatest star” for the entire show.

On a bare stage and backed by a 17-piece orchestra, the dozen actresses, young and old, take their best shots at bringing the legendary queen of the Ziegfeld Follies to life. Some do so with rip-roaring ribaldry, such as Andrea Goldin, returning to the stage after a decade’s absence, to celebrate as the newlywed Fanny in “Sadie, Sadie.”

The emphasis here is on the show’s musicality, and the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score receives a rousing tribute from the band, under Lorton’s baton. On occasion, however, it’s a bit too rousing, drowning out those singers who can’t approach Sanchez’s lofty range.

The key plot line is Fanny’s relationship with flashy gambler Nick Arnstein, here smoothly depicted by Alex Bodrero, whose matinee-idol looks enhance his lovable loser character. His seduction of Fanny in the “You Are Woman, I Am Man” segment is particularly effective.

Tim Klega reigns over the proceedings with benevolent authority as master showman Florenz Ziegfeld. Brandon Taylor James is particularly impressive as Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s young buddy and undeclared admirer from the old neighborhood.

Beth Hanson, another local legend in musical theater, has a winning turn as Fanny’s mother, backed by her penny-ante poker-playing pals Carmen Tunis, Jeanne Cassesso and Mary-Pat Gonzalez. They mesh well with James’ Eddie in the comedic number “Find Yourself a Man.”

This concert version of “Funny Girl” – which closes Feb. 21 — launches the 2016 season of musical productions at the Gem. Upcoming shows include “Always Patsy Cline,” “Bye By Birdie” and “Sweeney Todd.” Prospective theatergoers can obtain more information by calling (714) 741-9550, ext. 221.

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The Uninvited

A Verbose Ghost Story in Westminster

By Tom Titus

Spooks and shrieks and things that go bump in the night – all are present and accounted for at the Westminster Community Playhouse where “The Uninvited” currently is casting its spell through the Halloween season.

Playwright Tim Kelly adapted this 1940s chiller from Dorothy Macardle’s novel (and the subsequent Ray Milland movie) and has retained the vintage fright factor, sandwiched in between reams of expository dialogue. The result is a show that can become a tad tedious, but delivers in terms of shock value.

Director Brandon Ferruccio has mounted a production rich in atmospheric flavor (set in a Forties English manor on the edge of a cliff) and teeming with literary-style verbiage. A few of his cast members are quite skilled in the handling of this old-timey melodramatic style.

The “straight” roles of a brother and sister purchasing this ancient edifice are nicely handled by Mike Martin and Elizabeth M. Desloge. Martin projects his industrious playwright with the winning human qualities of impatience and frustration, while Desloge offers some skillfully natural interpretation of her basically bland character.

The central figure in this ghostly drama is Stella, a troubled young woman whose family has owned the tragedy-haunted abode and who now is eager to dispense with it. Meredith Culp shines in this role, both in her initial ebullience and her reaction to the terror the house imparts.

Bill Carson possesses the bull-like gruffness for his part as the girl’s stubborn grandfather, if not the theatrical timing which is noticeably absent. Amy Lauren Gettys is a jewel as the devoutly religious – and fervently opinionated — maid.

The playwright has introduced some fringe figures, who contribute little save for interesting characterizations. These include Jessica Haro as a spooky psychic, Genevieve Grady-Grot as a noted artist and Toni Beckman as a sympathetic physician.

Candy Beck is a commanding presence for her lone appearance as a stern one-time governess, while Beth Titus (yes, my ex, but that chapter closed over three decades ago) provides some needed comic relief as a chatty neighbor lady.

And, yes, the ghost does appear in the person of Rachel Key, whose silent, black-garbed presence is felt at various times during the show. She’s blended into the background by Bob Nydegger’s clever lighting designs.

“The Uninvited” is noteworthy more for its spooky special effects than for its creative storytelling. Its flavor is that of a midnight movie, which fits nicely into this Halloween season at the Westminster Community Playhouse, 7272 Maple St., Westminster, where it plays weekends through Nov. 1. Reservations (714) 893-8626.

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“Bette and Boo” a Wicked Satire

By Tom Titus

“The Marriage of Bette and Boo” is a family play, but those familiar with the works of playwright Christopher Durang will know what kind of family to expect – a group ranking somewhere between the Borgias and the Mansons.

Family life, with all of its quirkiness, is served up with generous helpings of Durang’s wicked satire in this offbeat comedy now on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. And, this being Durang, there also are a few zingers aimed at the Catholic church, one of his favorite targets (remember “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You”?).

Director Jeff Paul has called on a troupe of largely unfamiliar faces to bring Durang’s vintage play to life in this ensemble epic of episodic ribaldry. No time period is established, nor is one required to convey the writer’s satirical statements on love, alcoholism and mental illness, topics reportedly borrowed from the writer’s own experiences.

The title pair – enacted by Michelle Skinner and Carl Basile – are young lovers united in marriage and then barely enduring the next three decades together as all the societal traps are sprung around them. Their relatives are particularly satirized, resulting in some outlandishly memorable performances.

Skinner is especially delightful as a young lady who produces one healthy son before losing four more babies – whom she names after Winnie the Pooh characters. She’s a bit daffy, but perfectly sane when compared to those around her on both sides of the family.

Basile enacts the bloodless male stereotype who drowns his real feelings in booze. His performance intentionally lacks dimension, but hits the mark repeatedly.

The finest portrayals are delivered by Suzannah Gratz as Bette’s even goofier sister and Mark Wickham as Boo’s drunken, surly father. Gratz is a hoot as a cello player who can’t remember the numbers she’s performing, while Wickham sustains his stony character with a gnarled, alcohol-frozen face.

Boo’s mother, a giddy matronly lady known only as “Soot” (for reasons never revealed), is played in a servile, fluttery style by Dana Cook. Bette’s father, Wayne Mayberry, who speaks only in undecipherable grunts, draws large laughs after his “death” on stage when he continues to perform, shielded in a tablecloth.

Colton Dillon, as the sole survivor of the union, both acts and serves as narrator to establish a bond with the audience. Other contributors arre Mychael McDonough as Bette’s mother, Kay Richey as her perennially pregnant older sister and Phil Brickey as a priest who considers himself a showman who can’t be bothered with the common people, specifically Gratz’s loony-tunes character.

“The Marriage of Bette and Boo” is an oldie in the Durang repertoire, yet so rarely produced it’ll be new to most audiences. Its merry madness continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 3 at the playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, with ticket information available at (949) 650-5269.

A Kissable “Kate” at Vanguard

By Tom Titus

Long before Stephen Sondheim was recognized as Broadway’s premier composer/lyricist, a clever fellow named Cole Porter could justifiably lay claim to that honor.

Porter, known as much for his catchy lyrics as well as a smooth musical style (rhyming “find” with “wind,” as in “gone with the,” for instance), had his biggest hit in 1948 with the Tony-winning “Kiss Me, Kate,” which Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University currently is offering in a lustrous revival.

“Kate,” with a still-effective book by Bella and Samuel Spewack, revolves around a Broadway troupe mounting a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and centers on a once-married, now contentious couple starring in the show under the leading man’s direction. Naturally, affection lurks under all the ill feelings in the case of both parties.

At Vanguard, director Susan K. Berkompas has assembled a strong, energetic cast to back up the leads – both of whom exhibit terrific singing voices. The icing on this tasty cake, however, is some dynamic choreography from the actress playing Bianca, who steals the show repeatedly with her high-kicking dancing style.

Jordan Laemmlen may not be physically prepossessing as director Fred Graham, who doubles as Petruchio, but his rich, full-bodied voice is commanding in itself. He’s as convincing in romantic solos (“Were Thine That Special Face”) as he is in satirical moments (“Where is the Life That Late I Led?”) – which showcases Porter’s fertile imagination.

As the fiery Lili Vanessi, a screen star returning to the theater, Kelsey Coleman brings a haughty narcissistic quality to her character. She also renders as much heart (“So in Love”) as hostility (“I Hate Men”) in her performance and her scenes with Laemmlen crackle with comedic conflict.

As fine as these two are, though, audiences will leave the Lyceum Theater marveling at the superb dancing talent of Bretlyn Schmitt, who both choreographed the show and renders an incendiary performance as Lois/Bianca. The tall, slender Schmitt excels in the role most moviegoers associate with the great Ann Miller as she oozes erotically through numbers like “I’m Always True to You in My Fashion.”

Joshua David Martin is fine as Schmitt’s slippery paramour and co-star Bill Calhoun, whose felonious forgery brings two other guys into the picture. These would be Mark Austin Nunn and Seth Kennard as the unnamed debt collectors who tickle the audience with their treatment of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” earning two encores in the process.

Ian Jenkins scores as the Army general out to separate Lili from her theatrical bondage (in mid-performance). Movie fans will be surprised to learn that it’s he, not Lois, who sings “From This Moment On.”

Schmitt’s choreography keeps the dancers on their toes, literally, in such production numbers as “Too Darn Hot,” which may be somewhat overextended. She sets a torrid pace with her acrobatic style.

Paul Eggington’s rotating setting gives playgoers a front and back view reminiscent of “Noises Off.” Costumes, particularly those in the Shakespearean scenes, are beautifully accomplished by Lia M. Hansen, while musical director Janice Rodgers Wainwright keeps the show nicely upbeat.

“Kiss Me, Kate” is Cole Porter’s magnum opus and it receives a rousing revival from an enthusiastic company at Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa, where it continues weekends through April 26. Call (714) 668-6145 for ticket information.

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Conspiracies Abound in “Yankee Tavern”

By Tom Titus

Conspiracy theorists will discover plenty of raw meat to chew on if they drop into “Yankee Tavern,” winding up its two-weekend engagement at Golden West College this weekend (March 13-15).

Playwright Steven Dietz has delved into several plausible revelations surrounding major historical events (the JFK assassination, the moon landing, etc.), but he’s more concerned here with the events of September 11, 2001 – and who knew what, and when. His forum is a New York bar where such theories are served up regularly along with the beer and booze.

Against this backdrop, director Tom Amen has chosen a stellar four-character cast to spin this fantastic-sounding yarn which ultimately asks more questions than it answers – including the play’s very last line. You’ll leave the theater not knowing what to believe.

Adam (Brock Joseph) is a young man who has inherited this long-established midtown joint from his murdered father. He and his fiancee Janet (Mia-Bella Josimovic) are planning a wedding which itself has an air of mystery, starting with all the phony names on the groom’s guest list.

A regular customer (Michael Bielitz) – so regular he has a key to the establishment and his drinks are on the house – enthralls the others with his conspiracy tales that border on the supernatural. And a lone patron (Paul Jasser) drops in and orders two beers – the second for his absent friend, a victim of 9/11.

Joseph garnishes his normal-appearing character with revelations from his past, as well as his father’s, which cast uncertainty over his coming nuptials. His scenes with his lady love are sincere, on the surface, but nothing in this play is quite as it seems.

Josimovic has the show’s only “straight” role, a young woman desperately striving to maintain her relationship with Adam even while elements are introduced (by the stranger) that threaten their happiness. She projects dedication and sincerity in the face of such threats.

The play’s wild card is Bielitz’s Ray, an aging, garrulous barfly who spins tales and theories that sound incredulous, but gain credence as the story progresses. Bielitz, a veteran actor on the GWC stage and elsewhere, delivers a superb portrayal of this most difficult character, who may inspire images of Walter Brennan in more seasoned audience members.

Jasser has fewer than a handful of lines in the play’s first act, but he returns in the second to dominate the stage, particularly in his scenes with Josimovic as he unveils information about Adam’s character calculated to shock the young man’s fiancee. He also is the most mysterious member of the foursome, an outsider armed with more knowledge than he should possess.

The tavern itself – beautifully designed and appointed by Sigrid Hammer Wolf – functions as a fifth character in the show, especially its juke box which gave up the ghost on that fateful September day and has remained silent ever since.

“Yankee Tavern,” which will be new to most playgoers, is an intriguing and captivating examination of recent historical events combined with an engaging present-day drama. It’s a show that’ll keep you guessing well past the final curtain at Golden West College. Call (714) 895-8150 for ticket information.

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50 years on the aisle for the Daily Pilot

By Tom Titus

Fifty years is a heck of a long time for any one person to be doing any one thing, regardless of how much he or she may enjoy the activity.

Fifty years ago, back in 1965, as a young reporter with just a little over a year on the staff of the Daily Pilot, I was handed a pair of tickets by a fellow scribe who knew of my interest in live theater and asked if I would care to review a play at the old theater in Laguna Beach.

The show was “A Thousand Clowns,” starring a pre-“M*A*S*H” Mike Farrell, and it ignited what would become a half-century and counting as the Pilot’s theater critic. When you enjoy something as much as I appreciated live theater, you tend to stick with it.

The road from there to here is overflowing with memories. That February of ‘65 marked the introduction of South Coast Repertory to local audiences and I got in on the ground floor. I’ve now seen every one of SCR’s major productions – and reviewed all but one of them. The lone exception came in 2006 when I was hospitalized and my son Tim pinch-hit for me to review “The Real Thing” for the Pilot.

I enjoyed the theater so much that I got into it myself and began acting, and later directing. I learned early on that performing or directing in theater was the most fun you could have with your clothes on. My stage debut came in June of ‘65 as the cemetery lot salesman in “Send Me No Flowers,” the inaugural production of the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse.

When the Irvine Community Theater was born in 1970, I performed in its first show (“Come Blow Your Horn”) and did another (“Arsenic and Old Lace”) – in roles filled on screen by Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, respectively – before being asked to guest-direct an ICT production (“You Can’t Take It With You”). Before I knew it, I found myself ensconced as the theater’s artistic director, a pro bono position I filled for 31 years.

I never intentionally set out to become the Vin Scully of local theater critics. In fact, my early years in typewriter pounding leaned more toward Scully’s line of work. I was sports editor of my home town newspaper for four years before the Army intervened.

When I graduated from the Army Information School, I was sent to Korea where I became a staff writer, and eventually managing editor, of the 7th Infantry Division’s weekly newspaper. Then came a return to my roots – 14 months as sports editor of the Monmouth Message, the post newspaper in Fort Monmouth, NJ.

That stint as a Jersey boy triggered my lifelong love of live theater. The Army base was just an hour south of New York City, and I would spend every possible weekend in the Big Apple, picking up comp tickets from the Manhattan USO and catching show after show on and off Broadway, easily well over 100 productions.

In those days (as now) I had two major non-romantic passions – writing and the theater. When I got the chance to merge the two in 1965, I just never let go. And it was only a matter of time before I began acting and directing as well. I even wrote a play (“Summer Lightning”) which launched the directing phase of my community theater career.

I never really kept track of all the reviews I’ve written, but they number in the thousands over a half-century span. Add that to a couple hundred productions as actor or director and you’ve got a fellow who’s really been up to his ears in live theater.

I left the Pilot’s full-time employment in 1991, but was asked to continue reviewing local theater on a free-lance basis, an offer I couldn’t refuse. There certainly is enough local theater activity to inspire a column every week.

Theater figured strongly in my personal life as well. When I played Mitch in the Westminster Community Theater’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1970, I fell in love with the actress playing Blanche. Beth and I were married for 13 years and still remain friends, and the union produced two exceptional children, now exceptional adults.

Son Tim teaches psychology and serves as the journalism advisor at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, while daughter Mindy, a credit union manager and occasional actress, has produced two beautiful (not that I’m prejudiced) daughters, Riley and Kaylyn, who are getting an early introduction to the theater. Riley, who turns 8 in February, already has been in her school’s show, “The Wiz,” and has a role in the upcoming “Alice in Wonderland.”

Both of my own kids were thoroughly immersed in theater during their youth. Two of my favorite acting roles were those of Scotty Templeton in “Tribute” with Tim playing my son and Herb Tucker in “I Ought to Be in Pictures” when Mindy portrayed my daughter.

When I met my current lady love, Jurine Landoe, a dozen years ago, I hung it up at ICT so I could spend more time with her. I returned to the Irvine theater in 2007 to direct one final play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a few months after my hospital stint (I’d spent the better part of 2006 battling lymphoma and pneumonia), then happily closed the book on my active participation in theater, my passion finally sated.

I’m still in reasonably good health (despite that scare in ‘06) and hope to be around, certainly not another 50 years, but quite a few more to continue a love affair with the stage that began back in 1962 when I’d spend my weekends discovering live theater along the Great White Way.

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