A Powerful “La Mancha” in Orange

By Tom Titus

Sharp characterizations and strong singing voices combine to make the revival of “Man of La Mancha” by Party by Number Entertainment a memorable production at the Village Theater in Orange.

With director Sergio Candido taking the leading role of Cervantes/Don Quixote, bringing his two decades of musical theater experience to the fore, his “La Mancha” is worth a much longer engagement than its scheduled two weekends (closing Oct. 26).

The show is marked by passion and fervor except, curiously, in its scenes depicting physical action. Nevertheless, the vocal strength displayed by its principal actors make it a rich theatrical experience.

Candido is a more robust figure than those who generally step into Don Quixote’s boots, but he alternates splendidly in the scenes depicting bravado and inglorious defeat. He also receives some splendid support, particularly from Vanessa Cedeno’s fiery kitchen wench Aldonza.

Cedeno possesses the character’s required beauty and sensual appeal, and her singing voice bursts with a ringing operatic quality. Added to this is a smoldering resentment of her station in life which she thrusts into Quixote’s face in her terrific solo, “Aldonza,” late in the show.

Quixote’s addled but agreeable squire, Sancho Panza, is enacted with a giddy sense of fidelity and servitude by Randy Calcetas, who brings an appreciable lighter touch to the role. He properly conveys the impression of a fellow who’s half into fantasy and half mired in reality.

A particular bastion of supporting strength is John Espino, who plays the powerful yet compassionate Dr. Corrasco, engaged to his adversary’s niece. Espino underscores his inner concern, even while overcome the mad knight in battle, and contributes a particularly strong singing voice.

Two minor characters who ascend into memorable figures are the harried innkeeper and his obstreperous wife. Frank Valdez skillfully balances between accommodation and opposition, while Norma Jean, startlingly uglified, may overplay her screeching harridan at times, but she’s truly effective.

James Gomez has a comical turn as the barber who loses his “golden helmet” to Quixote, while Gordon Buckley is fearsome as the chief muleteer. Matt Koutroulis generates a calm resolve as the padre and Tayler Noel Hayes is engaging as the niece, Antonia.

As for the physical action scenes, they are disappointing primarily because the balance of the production is so well done. Both the combat and abduction sequences are given short shrift compared to the choreography of previous versions of the show.

Musically, this “La Mancha” is a winner, with musical director David Diiorio helming a splendid combo, punctuated by fierce trumpet and drums. Choreographer Lauren Ross exhibits some engaging numbers, though the pre-show dance sequence is somewhat superfluous.

“Man of La Mancha” is one of the musical theater’s modern classics and this production does its creators proud. Closing performances will be given Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7, and Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Village Theater, 1140 N. Tustin Ave. in Orange. Call (714) 316-8826 for ticket information.

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“Assassins” review

“Assassins” Hits the Bullseye at Gem

By Tom Titus

There is, on the stage of Garden Grove’s Gem Theater, a most exclusive private club consisting of five charter members, along with several honorary members who tried to join the club and took their best shot, but failed.

The members range, historically, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, while the wannabes include John Hinkley Jr., Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. By now, you’re probably aware that these are the characters from Stephen Sondheim’s dark but brilliant musical “Assassins.”

In director Beth Hansen’s spellbinding production, the setting resembles a high-end tavern in which a mysterious proprietor (Daniel Berlin) dispenses liquor and armaments, while serving as propmeister and setting up the vignettes from the more unfortunate pages of U.S. history.

One by one, both the assassinations and bungled attempts are played out, beginning with Booth, a radical, racist Southerner who blamed Abraham Lincoln for starting the Civil War. He’s given a superb, invective-laced performance by Alex Bodrero, who later goads Oswald into taking a shot at John F. Kennedy.

The most flamboyant character in the cast is Charles Guiteau, whose delusions included an ambassadorship to France and who shot President James Garfield. This show-stealing role is played with all stops out by Damien Lorton, the theater’s artistic director, who turns his walk to the noose into a vaudeville exercise.

Guiseppe Zangara, who tried to kill FDR but failed (but who accidentally killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak), is portrayed as an embittered rabble rouser whose execution in the electric chair is grippingly depicted on stage. He’s played with venomous distaste by Danny Diaz.

The two women who tried to take down Gerald Ford are depicted as co-conspirators. Adriana Sanchez beautifully plays a clumsy matron, Sara Jane Moore, who keeps losing her gun, while Gretchen Dawson enacts the fiery Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme of Manson Family fame (or infamy). It’s a sharp change of pace for Sanchez, who recently excelled as “Evita” on the same stage.

Dawson’s Fromme encounters another failed shooter, John Hinkley Jr., played with passionate conviction by Tad Fujioka. They join in a duet celebrating their dedications – Fromme’s to Charles Manson, Hinkley’s to Jodie Foster prior to his wounding of Ronald Reagan.

Evan Guido depicts overflowing radicalism as Leon Csolgosz, the rebellious immigrant who killed President William McKinley and reportedly had an affair with anarchist Emma Goldman (a staunch Fiona Wynder).

Clad in a tattered Santa Claus suit, Chris Harper portrays the extremely deranged Samuel Byck, who attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon by flying a plane into the White House. His story doesn’t spring readily to mind, but Harper makes it come alive with a vengeance.

The balladeer, Brandon Taylor Jones, who celebrates their stories in song, later becomes Oswald, a perennial loser who makes his final murderous statement in Dallas, goaded by the silver-tongued Booth, along with the other shooters, past and future. It’s a piece marked by ensemble excellence as the others overcome Oswald’s hesitancy.

“Assassins” continues through Nov. 2 at the Gem, 12852 Main St. in Garden Grove, playing Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Call One More Productions at (714) 741-9550 or go online at http://www.onemoreproductions.com for ticket information.

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A Ghostly “Screw” Turned at GWC

Turning a Ghostly “Screw” at GWC

By Tom Titus

Just in time for pre-Halloween entertainment comes “The Turn of the Screw,” Jeffrey Hatcher’s eerie adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story, on stage through Oct 19 at Golden West College in Huntington Beach.

There are plenty of spirits in this tale, but you won’t see them from your seat in the audience. It’s a “memory play” both performed and narrated by its principal character, a middle-aged governess in charge of two troublesome children at a vintage manor in 1872 England.

She’s one of two characters in the abbreviated (70 minutes) one-act play, the other being an actor who interprets several roles – men, women and one of the children (the other doesn’t speak). Director Tom Amen successfully establishes an air of mystery and terror which manifests itself in the minds of the playgoers.

In a performance of frightening magnitude, Camille Lacey portrays the maiden governess who signs on to serve a mysterious and unseen master of the manor, which is haunted by the spirits of her predecessor and a creepy valet who, we are to believe, seduced her before both perished.

Lacey delivers a remarkable interpretation, blending a genuine sense of affection for the children with an abject horror when confronted with the ghosts of “Jessel,” the onetime governess, and “Quint,” the evil servant.

Paul Jasser enacts the other character, or more accurately “characters” – the manor’s fluttery housekeeper, the troubled young boy and other fringe personages, even bird sounds. He also shares narrating duty in a spectral manner well suited for the surroundings.

Jasser is at his most effective when portraying the young boy, Miles, who attempts to establish dominion over the new governess. His seductive nature in one so young is quite astonishing, to say the least.

The production is quite ambiguous because, as Amen explains, “Henry James intended it that way” in his original novella. The show raises more questions than answers, and both actors are skilled in shielding the truth of the piece from the audience. Whether they could sustain such a mood over the length of a traditional play is quite another matter.

The setting – which consists solely of a long staircase, is the work of Frederick P. DePontee, who also designed the unsettling lighting effects. Sylvia Boutelle’s costumes (heavy on the black) and makeup add depth to the show, as do the sound effects of Veronica Mullins.

“The Turn of the Screw” concludes the weekend of Oct. 17-19 in the Mainstage Theater on the Golden West campus, with Friday and Saturday curtain at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16 and $14, and reservations are taken at (714) 895-8150 or online at http://www.gwctheater.com.

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