Making Movies and TV Audience Friendly

By Tom Titus

Readers of this occasional blog more than likely expect a comment or three about local theater. After all, that’s been my stock in trade for the past half century.

But I was a movie fan long before I discovered the wonders of live theater. And today I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the motion picture and television industries that would prove beneficial both to them and, most importantly, to their audiences.

When did Hollywood start the abysmal practice of starting a movie without tellng the viewers the identity of the actors and actresses playing major roles in the picture? Today, it seems, we don’t actually know who’s in the flick until the closing credits roll.

Let’s return to the traditional “Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in ‘Double Indemnity’ “ opening credits (and, on that topic, don’t miss “Billy & Ray” at the Laguna Playhouse before it closes Oct. 30). I couldn’t resist throwing in that theatrical tidbit.

And, while we’re at it, how about borrowing a tactic from the producers of such movies as “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape” and “Take the High Ground,” among others. That is, why not identify each actor and actress with his or her picture as a sort of cinematic curtain call?

Turning to television, one of the industry’s most grievous faults is identifying actors at the start of a show, but not showing the character they play, as did programs like “Dallas” and “M*A*S*H.” Some shows still practice that laudable method – including “Criminal Minds,” “Law & Order” and “Blue Bloods.”

But watch a show like “Gray’s Anatomy,” for instance, and you get the names at the outset, but if you’re new to the program you have no idea who the people are portraying. Let’s see their likeness as they’re identified.

Those are just a few things I’d be attending to if I were in charge of movies or TV shows. In the next few editions of this column, I’ll take a look backward and come up with a few “top 10″ lists vis the IMOHO (in my own humble opinion) technique.

I’ll be starting with an honor roll of actors and movies that should have been honored by the Academy, but weren’t. Stay tuned.

A Beauty of a “Beast” on SCR Stage

By Tom Titus

Once a year, South Coast Repertory’s Summer Players, the cream of its youth conservatory crop with performers ranging from 10 to 19 years old, earn the chance to strut their stuff on the main stage, and this year they’ve positively nailed the Disney rendition of “Beauty and the Beast.”

Under the inspired direction of Hisa Takakuwa, in her 11th year of operating the youth program, and musical director Erin McNally, the SCR youngsters are offering an excellent production in all respects – including the depiction of “inanimate” objects cursed under the same spell that turned a handsome prince into a grotesque monster.

The centerpiece of the show is its beauty, Katherine Parrish, who plays the gorgeous but bookish Belle. She not only fills the bill physically, she displays an exceptionally beautiful voice which should guarantee her a successful career in musical theater.

The Beast – Kelsey Kato as the thoroughly nasty master of his castle – also impresses, thanks in large measure to the elaborate costume of Sara Ryung Clement, who also designed the superb setting. Kato presents a snarling creature who endeavors to mask a human heart, which is breaking.

His rival for Belle’s affections is the proud, self-aggrandizing Gaston, played to the hilt by Anthony Cervero. Belle’s goofy inventor father offers some deft comedy relief in the performance of Nick Kessler.

The showiest roles, however, are those of the candelabra Lumiere (Christopher Huntley), the officious clock Cogsworth (Jamie Ostmann) and the chatty teapot Mrs. Potts (Rachel Charny), as well as the sensual Babette (Rachel Baiey), the haughty dresser Madame de la Grande Bouche (Kelsey Bray) and Mrs. Potts’ serving bowl son Chip (Jacki Vellandi).

Other utensils abound, such as napkins, plates and silverware, all designed by Clement and set in motion by choreographer Chelsea Baldree. Heightening the fanciful effect is the lighting design of Karyn D. Lawrence.

This is a fully staged production, as elaborate as any you’ll encounter in the adult theater world, professional or amateur. Closing performances are this weekend on SCR’s Julienne Argyros Stage and they shouldn’t be missed, whether you’ve got a kid in the show or not. Call (714) 708-5555 for ticket information.

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Tweaking a TV Classic in HB

By Tom Titus

One of my favorite TV shows of all time was “M*A*S*H” for a couple reasons. First, I spent a year in Korea (a few years after the shooting stopped), courtesy of the U.S. Army, and secondly, the first actor I ever reviewed, back in 1965, was Mike Farrell, who went on to create his memorable B.J. Hunnicutt character on TV’s “M*A*S*H.”

Well, “M*A*S*H” is back, or at least the live theatrical version (and without Hunnicutt). The re-imagined (by playwright Tim Kelly) adventures of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital have pitched their tent at the Huntington Beach Playhouse through Aug. 13.

Devotees of the TV show, or the movie that inspired it, will be taken aback on a few fronts. The two most diametrically opposed characters from the tube (Major Burns and Corporal Klinger) are played by the same actor and the Burns-Hot Lips Houlihan romance never gets off the ground (he’s sent home on a Section 8 shortly after she arrives).

Playgoers who’ve sat through the whole show yearning to hear the classic theme music are finally rewarded after the curtain call. It could have opened the proceedings and been played prior to and after intermission. The episode that inspired that music (“Suicide is Painless”), from the original movie, is there in all its gory glory.

Director Jack Messenger has compiled a large and energetic cast to turn back the clock for nostalgia buffs, and on most counts the mission has been accomplished. It certainly hits the mark in the performance of Michael Keeney, who plays the stellar role of Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce with bombastic enthusiasm that would bring a smile to the face of Alan Alda, his TV counterpart.

Brandon Kasper shoulders his share of the comedic load as “Trapper John” McIntyre, Hawkeye’s partner in outrageous fun. Robert Purcell plays their boss, Colonel Blake, minus the twinkle in the eye of TV’s McLean Stevenson and more like his successor, Henry Morgan, without the horse.

Trevor Wright does double duty in the roles of the uptight Burns and the cross-dressing Klinger, excelling in the first and trying playgoers’ patience in the second. Sarah Hoeven enacts “Hot Lips” Houlihan as a grim martinet and we miss the tempestuous interplay with Burns that inspired her nickname.

The nurses are all cute and competent, but Melinda Harlow is a head above the others both in talent and physical appeal. Scott Felver is a near-ringer for Gary Burghoff in the role of the clairvoyant Radar O’Reilly and Larry Moreno excels as the ambitious Korean houseboy.

On the civilian front, Suzanne Grady as a congresswoman and Glenda Wright as a college dean perform admirably. Chuck Chastain is effectively blunt and boorish as the commanding general while Tracy Marquis scores as the scam-artist cook.

Andrew Otero’s multi-level set design works smoothly, spread out over a large playing area. Paul McGlinchey and Breece Bowen handle lighting and sound duties solidly.

There are plenty of laughs and nostalgic moments on hand, despite the alterations of some memorable moments, in this raucous revival at the Huntington Beach Playhouse in the Library Theater, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Curtain is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call (714) 375-0696 for details and reservations.

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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.