Theatre Magic: “Aladdin” Flies into Boyle Heights

It was no surprise when Disney rolled out a blockbuster stage version of its 1992 hit film, Aladdin, for Broadway and national tours.  And it’s no surprise it’s been running for over six years .

But it’s a real surprise when Casa 0101, a spunky company in Boyle Heights, decides to put that big show in their 99-seat black box.

Even more surprising is the version they use — which was developed by Disney with LA playwright José Cruz González. It’s trimmed it to fit a 90-minute playing time, and stays closer the film. The result is, frankly, more focused and dynamic than the Broadway show.

Rosa Navarrete, Sarah Kennedy, Daniel Martinez, Sebastian Gonzalez (photo: Luis Gaudi)

But most important, this Aladdin is bilingual.  It’s not just performed in two languages — the revised plot hinges on an evil curse that has given the people of Agrabah two languages (Spanish and English), but has left them unable to understand each other.

Thus, the Sultan must employ three facile translators.  Animals (Aladdin’s monkey friend Abu, and the wicked vizier’s parrot Iago) also move between languages.  But Agrabah’s royals and nobles speak only Spanish, while the common folk only know English.

This makes the love story doubly star-crossed: Aladdin the street urchin and Princess Jazmin not only come from different worlds, they can barely understand each other.  But of course, love conquers all — with the help of a magic carpet and a powerful genie.  And when the curse is lifted, Agrabah’s folks chatter together happily.

Casa 0101’s production is ambitious — but with invention and style, they fit the huge spectacle into  their tiny space. Scenic designer Cesar Holguin and lighting designer Sohail e. Najafi are as inventive as if they were at the Pantages, and their effects (with one exception) are magical.  Choreographer Tania Possick and music director Caroline Benzon whirl the skillful dozen-member chorus through their numbers, while costumers Abel Alvarado and Jules Bronola pull incredibly swift costume changes.

Of course, when Genie bursts out of the lamp, he takes over the show — that’s how it’s written.  And Finley Polynice makes it happen, with power and skill and overflowing good humor.  The story’s other driver is the evil vizier, Jafar; Luis Marquez exudes charm along with his nefarious egotism, making us almost root for him.  Holding together the world they inhabit is the Sultan, played gently yet firmly by Henry  Madrid.

Daniel Martinez and Sarah Kennedy give the lovers the right amount of youthful innocence, while Sebastian Gonzalez (as Abu) and Jason David (as Iago, a delightful puppet made by Tony Velis) dispense bits of snarky wisdom.  Danielle Espinoza boldly embodies a flighty, flirty Magic Carpet, and Rosa Navarrete’s Rajah the tiger seethes with a sultry knowing.  As the Royal Translators, Diana Castrillon, Bianca Espinoza and Shanara Sanders carry the story with clarity and dazzle with their song-and-dance work.

You might not expect it, but this Aladdin is really an ensemble show.  And that’s high praise to director Rigo Tejeda and all the actors. From lead to chorus member, everyone has made character choices and works them throughout the play.  That produces a lovely, lively energy that never flags.

Because it’s such an appealing show for families, this Aladdin should enjoy a long run.  And every time it plays, Casa 0101 fulfills another part of its mission the the community.
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Disney”s Aladdin (Dual Language Edition), book by Jim Luigs and José Cruz Gonzáles, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (translated by Walterio Pesqueira); choreographed by Tania Possick and directed by Rigo Tejeda.
Presented by Casa 0101 and TNH Productions, in association with LA City Councilmember Gil Cedillo; at the Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. First St., LA 90033.

Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00, 5:00, and 8:00,
Sundays at 1:00, 4:00. and 7:00,
through Feb. 19.

Tickets: <www.casa0101.org> or (323) 263-7684.

 

“Pick of the Vine”: A Fine Vintage from Little Fish

There are two kinds of short-play festivals.

In one, the members of a company see what they can scrabble together in a mad rush from blank page to lit stage, usually popping out a handful of playlets in a weekend.  It’s a lot of fun, and seldom produces any shows worth doing again (but nobody expects it to).

In the other, a company invites playwrights to submit short works, then chooses a half-dozen or so to mount — usually in an evening of theatre that gets a regular run.  This is the only way most short plays ever get seen, so most writers are pretty serious about the works they send (no mere bagatelles), and most companies are serious about producing them.

Out San Pedro way, a small company named Little Fish has been holding the second kind of festival for 15 years now.  For the current “Pick of the Vine,”  more than 700 playwrights sent in one play each.  (That’s right — 700 plays.  In San Pedro.)

The judges selected 9 winners, and the troupe has spent the last couple of months creating a show that will run through mid-February.  It’s lively evening, full of variety — and rich in surprises.

Four of the plays are dramas, and five are  comedies. Eight actors handle the 28 roles, and four directors divide up the duties. Things get a little busy between plays, but the changes are swift and (thanks to some clever design work by Christopher Beyries) at times a source of delight.

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Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, Don Schlossman (photo: Mickey Elliott)

Holly Baker-Kreiswirth, Don Schlossman (photo: Mickey Elliott)

The Dramas

Interestingly, all four dramas are two-handers.  Ten minutes isn’t much time; each of the four authors uses it wisely, keeping a tight focus and  deepening our sense of  character and conflict.

In Wheelchair (by Hollywood screenwriter Scott Mullen), two strangers meet in a park. Their curiosity about a nearby couple takes us to a place we can’t foresee. Bill Wolski’s brash fellow unwittingly peels himself like an onion, while Olivia Schlueter-Corey’s charming woman uses others’ underestimation of her like an aikido master.   Director Richard Perloff’s light hand lets the tension beneath the new friendship build almost subliminally, so the reveal is a slap.

By contrast, Screaming (by Stephen Peirick, a Little Fish alum now in St. Louis) begins in high tension and winds steadily higher, as a young couple struggles with severe post-partum depression — an arrival they didn’t expect.  Jessica Winward makes us feel her death-grip on  the frayed end of her rope; and Wolski nicely delivers her confused mate’s stumbles toward empathy.  Perloff again keeps things on the understated side, even in the midst of rising hysteria.

Although it’s a drama, taking us into its characters, Thick Gnat Hands (by  New York’s Erin Mallon) includes laugh-out-loud comedy.  As a dialysis-clinic veteran, Don Schlossman bubbles over with an enthusiasm that makes first-timer Wolski’s anxiety unbearable.  Director Elissa Anne Polansky lets the mix simmer but not boil, so we reach the deeper levels of emotion beneath the laughter.

The Way It Really, Truly Almost Was (by veteran Seattle dramatist Brendan Healy) is the most ambitious drama, sliding between reality, memory and imagination in a mere 10 minutes.  Schlossman bares the hope and suffering of a man whose beloved lies comatose; Holly Baker-Kreiswirth embodies calm in the face of death, and a love that tries to guide her mate.  Polansky’s delicate touch holds this piece on the edge of pathos, and our eyes are never dry.

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Olivia Schlueter-Cory, Bill Wolski, Brendan Gill, Rodney Rincon, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliott)

Olivia Schlueter-Corey, Bill Wolski, Brendan Gill, Rodney Rincon, Holly Baker-Kreiswirth (photo: Mickey Elliott)

The Comedies
All five of the comic plays benefit from a playful inventiveness, in the writing and in the production.

Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (by Boston’s Patrick Gabridge) has the simplest premise: Parents wonder when to tell their son about Santa Claus. Geraldine Fuentes and Rodney Rincon are an irrepressible pair,  improvising boldly amid the debris of shattered myths, and Brendan Gill gives their son a nice naivete. Director Gigi Fusco Meese maintains a brisk pace, while keeping the stakes high.

I Don’t Know (by James McLindon, a New York lawyer turned writer) also builds on a simple conceit — a drill instructor tries to use age-old marching chants with a group of modern recruits. Rincon rings the frustrated DI’s changes deftly, while Wolski, Gill, Schlueter-Corey and Baker-Kreiswirth gingerly challenge him. The ensemble — tight as a parade team — keeps the satire sharply topical but light.

Another simple idea underlies A Very Short Play about the Very Short Presidency of William Henry Harrison (by Connecticut’s Jonathan Yukich, a Kennedy Center honoree).  In a swift handful of scenelets, Rincon slideshows through the would-be statesman’s rapid decline, with Schlossman as his imperturbable aide. Meese makes it tick, and lets us laugh about our dark fear — an ambitious, incompetent chief.

A Womb with a View (by New York’s widely produced Rich Orloff) has a more complex setting — an infant’s about to enter this dimension, aided by an otherworld clinical team. Baker-Kreiswirth oscillates between eagerness and terror, while Fuentes, Schlueter-Corey, Winward and Gill ineptly assist her. Perloff shows a sure comic hand, never letting the goofy machinery slow the 11th-hour story.

The Holy Grill (by New Jersey theatre prof Gary Shaffer) has the most complex comic setup.  Two worlds collide as a couple seeking prenuptial counsel get interrogated by detectives.  Rincon and Schlossman create a good cop/ bad cop team with a borscht belt flavor; Winward and Wolski are increasingly rattled innocents.
Despite some muddled blocking, the actors make it work.

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The fact that 700 authors sent in plays for “Pick of the Vine” might seem to say that today’s playwrights are desperate to have their work produced.  And perhaps they are.

But the quality of these plays — and the almost uniformly high quality of their production — says more about Little Fish Theatre. This company invests seriously in its short-play festival (they even pay the actors!), and the word is on the street: If you want your best short play done proud, send it to San Pedro.

And if you want to see some of the best short plays being written, smartly staged by talented thespians,  get yourself to San Pedro.  “Pick of the Vine” is well worth a bit of driving.
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“Pick of the Vine,” written by nine authors, directed by four  directors.
Presented by Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre St., San Pedro 90731.

Thursdays (except Jan. 19) at 8:00,
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through February 11th.

Tickets:  <www.littlefishtheatre.org>  or  (310) 510-6030.

 

 

“End Up Here” — Sundays in the Dark with Chris

You may not know Christopher Reiner.

The next two Sunday afternoons, you can amend that by dropping in at Zombie Joe’s Underground in NoHo.

From 4 to 5 pm, Reiner takes to the keyboard and mic to share a handful of songs from his copious catalog.  He also steps over to a lectern now and then, for samples of his prose compositions. He’s a genial host, and the hour flows by easily, too soon over.

Christopher Reiner

Christopher Reiner

But Reiner’s songs and stories — their familiar feel, their sudden surprises — will stay with you.  You may find yourself humming one of his melodies; you’ll surely smile as you recall one of his wry turns of phrase.

Reiner’s an accomplished master of “comfortable pop” — his sound, like his manner, makes you feel at home, settling in for a pleasant ride.  But he’s got a sharp, post-modern wit; so the lyrics can weave a gentle love song, or run you into  bumps and sudden turns.  His best stuff is part Cole Porter and part Kafka.  You go from tapping your toes to dropping your jaw, or laughing out loud, or bursting a sudden sigh at recognizing an unfortunate truth.

For more than a decade, Reiner has been the “house composer” at Zombie Joe’s, crafting musical analogs for the horripilating vignettes and discomforting dramas that have made the place famous.  (His musical setting of Poe’s “The Bells,” for example, is a masterwork.) But he has stayed in the background.  Occasionally, he’s been cajoled onstage to accompany a show; usually, he appears on a CD in the control booth.

So this is a rare treat.  And a sweet one — Christopher Reiner is someone you’ll be glad you met, and will want to spend more time with.  There’s a CD for sale in the lobby; and we hope there’s another show coming.
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End Up Here, written and performed by Christopher Reiner, directed by Zombie Joe.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Sundays at 4:00,
through January 22.

Tickets:  <www.ZombieJoes.tix.com>  or  (818) 202-4120.