Falling under Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas spell

Photo Credit: RCA Records

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Falling under Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas spell – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

Kelly Clarkson has turned me into my least favorite type of person: a Christmas-in-October person.

It’s all her fault. I’ve never been a big fan of the celebrity Christmas album – sure, Michael Bublé sounds great on his, and Celine Dion’s version of “O Holy Night” is still one of the best things that’s ever been recorded, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. So when I heard that my favorite Texan vocal powerhouse was releasing a holiday record, I sighed. First she did the greatest hits album, now this – is she retiring at 35 or something?

But then I listened to “Wrapped in Red,” released last Tuesday – Oct. 29, not even close to Christmas – and now I can’t get “Silent Night” out of my head. Or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Or “White Christmas.” It’s a serious problem.

Leaping straight to Christmas right after Halloween – er, before Halloween – is a bad idea. It means you’ll burn out of holiday cheer right around Dec. 8. It means you’re ignoring Thanksgiving, the most woefully overlooked holiday. Christmas takes over a whole month anyway – why does it need any more time?

Oh, wait, Clarkson’s new song “Underneath the Tree” just came on and reminded me that Christmas needs more time because it is the best. Just thinking of a fireplace roaring as snow falls outside gives me warm, fuzzy feelings. (“But Kevin, you grew up in Austin, Texas–” Shh, snow is falling outside. It’s very important to my creative vision.) Why wouldn’t you want to play Christmas music all year long?

In the years since Clarkson won “American Idol,” I’ve also forgotten how good she is at big band-style music. It serves her so well here, as she nails even the most tangentially Christmas-related songs – who decided “My Favorite Things” was about the holidays? Quite frankly, there’s not a bad cover song on the record.

But wait, I think, waking from my snowy reverie. The most important part of a Christmas album is the original hit. And an original Christmas song hasn’t become a new standard since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I’ll probably get bored with Clarkson’s takes on the classic Christmas songs, right?

Wrong. Because Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” is a hit just waiting to happen. “4 Carats” is one of her hottest songs ever, regardless of the holiday theme. And “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song)” is an adorable, sweet-hearted tune for her new husband.

That’s it. I’m done resisting. I’m letting the early holiday feels wash over me. After all, if letting Kelly Clarkson make you love early Christmas music is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

How the Other Half Loves

Cast and staging appeals in ‘How the Other Half Loves’

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Cast and staging appeals in “How the Other Half Loves” – Los Angeles Loyolan.

How the Other Half Loves

Photo Credit: Kevin Halladay-Glynn | The Los Angeles Loyolan

The art direction of a play can vary from something spectacular and opulent to a bare stage, but it’s rare that the stage itself is one of the most fascinating parts of a production. In “How the Other Half Loves,” the Del Rey Players’ newest show currently on stage in the Del Rey Theatre, the set is not only crucial, but it keeps the pace lively and stages the characters against each other in a unique and fascinating fashion.

While the staging is fantastic, the show is more than just its set. Hilarious, lived-in performances and a sharp pace make this show an impressive feat and a thrill to experience. Director Joe Hospodor, a junior theatre arts major, has achieved a trifecta of able direction, great set design and universally strong performances to create a portrait of domestic life that doesn’t sacrifice the humanity of its characters in search for a laugh.

The setup is simple enough: Two couples in the early ‘70s occupy opposite sides of the wealth spectrum. Frank and Fiona Foster (freshman theatre arts major Ben Szymanski and sophomore theatre arts major Paulina Fricke) are comfortable; Bob and Teresa Phillips (senior theatre arts and political science double major Rechard Francois and sophomore theatre arts major Mackenzie Ward) are less than wealthy. The primary conflict comes from Fiona and Bob’s off-stage affair and the troubles in the Phillips’ marriage.

From that central point, countless misunderstandings and awkward confrontations spur the action, and a third couple, William and Mary Detweiler (sophomore theatre arts major Kent Jenkins and senior theatre arts major Ashley Donnert) are thrown into the fray to further complicate matters. The play itself, written by playwright Alan Ayckbourn, is cute, but hinges so much on the characterization and the actors’ timing to sell the comedy.

On that front, the cast delivers in droves. This sextet of performances deserves a place in the (sadly non-existent) LMU Theatre Arts Hall of Fame – truly, this is an ensemble without weak points. As the Phillips, Francois and Ward strike the perfect balance of hate/love chemistry. Ward’s drunk and angry wife could have easily become unlikable and ventured into ‘shrill harpy’ territory, but she stays hilarious and never lets you forget that she’s truly the victim in the messy web of relationships.

Jenkins and Donnert should be given the greatest of ovations for their pitch-perfect performances as the Detweilers. From first entrance to the crucial dinner scene, where they have to essentially act in two scenes at once, the pair is flawless. Jenkins has appeared in several productions during his two years at LMU, but no director before Hospodor has harnessed his lovable, dork energy anywhere near as effectively. Donnert steals every scene she’s in, playing Mary as a meek mouse who always seems to want a way out of the crisis.

Fricke and Szymanski have arguably the hardest task of any of the actors: The Fosters are by far the most detached of any of the couples despite their picture-perfect marriage. Fiona is a particularly difficult character to make human amidst her seeming disregard for her husband and icy interactions with Teresa. However, Fricke succeeds at making her more than an alpha bitch. Szymanski is pulling nothing less than Herculean duty in selling the comedy of his character. Almost everything he does physically and with his voice when delivering a joke slays his audience. He has a gift for comedy, something Hospodor was incredibly smart to notice.

From start to finish, the production just runs like a well-oiled machine. The staging, with both main rooms on one set, allows for giant portions of the show to flow uninterrupted and keep the energy high. The costume design is clever and period appropriate, with the color choices of particular note. The lighting, while simple, does its job – there are a few dramatic moments that heighten the suspense thanks to a smart change in color or intensity.

The show isn’t perfect: The quick dialogue sometimes causes the actors to trip over their words. But the show is hardly hindered by its small flaws. In fact, it seems all the more real.

“How the Other Half Loves” is not an epic with massive sets and a veritable truckload of cast members, but it doesn’t need to be. It accomplishes so much with six skilled performers and a stage that pushes the storytelling into a new realm. Hospodor directs every aspect of the performance to the brink of perfection and often manages to push it there. It is a truly appealing production and a joy to watch.

Four showings of “How the Other Half Loves” remain this Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. each night. Tickets can be bought through the Central Ticketing Agency.

The Bacchae of Euripides

Strong performances carry difficult ‘Bacchae’ material

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For orignal, please refer to: Strong performances carry difficult ‘Bacchae’ material – Los Angeles Loyolan.

The Bacchae of Euripides

Photo Credit: Devin Sixt | The Los Angeles Loyolan

It can be said that “The Bacchae of Euripides,” the newest production by LMU’s theatre arts and dance department, is a strange show. It is an intense show. It is a challenging show. But most importantly, it is a masterful show.

Based on “The Bacchae,” a Greek tragedy written by Euripides, and first performed in 405 BC this version, written by the President’s Marymount Institute Professor in Residence Wole Soyinka, is an African interpretation with powerful musical moments. It requires incredible levels of commitment from each member of the ensemble cast and sky-high energy levels, and under the direction of theatre arts professor Kevin Wetmore, “The Bacchae of Euripides” is a success because it achieves both.

The story is based on the myth of King Pentheus, a man who refuses to follow Dionysus, the god of wine (amongst other things). Pentheus and his mother, Agave, are both punished, as she is possessed by the same bloodlust and passion as Dionysus’ other female followers. Behind the basic plot are greater themes, including the battle between creation and oppression. This production communicates these themes through commanding dance and music.

Wetmore chose to create a sense of controlled chaos in the production, with modern and classical sensibilities merging in powerful fashion. The set, designed by theatre arts professor Maureen Weiss, is absolutely incredible, almost a jungle gym on a sparse stage that is used as setting, prop and musical instrument. Every inch of the stage is used, with actors venturing into the audience for even further exploration of the space. The costumes, which were created by visiting theatre arts professor Sara Ryung Clement, are an interesting mix of African and post-apocalyptic design, a fascinating choice and one that works really well.

While the play is incredibly visually appealing, it could only reach truly masterful status with the help of a strong, committed ensemble of actors. The dialogue is challenging and the choreography demanding, so both require nothing less than top-notch work from all involved. Luckily, there are only a few weak links here – almost every performer does stunning work. Sophomore theatre arts major Julian Garcia is especially stunning as King Pentheus. From his first line, he commands attention and owns the stage with volume and authority. His range is awe-inspiring and his sheer skill is impressive.

Many other members of the ensemble join Garcia in energetic and expressive work. Two that stand out are senior theatre arts major Jeremy Larrere as Tiresias, the blind priest, and freshman theatre arts major Keeley Miller as Agave. Larrere fully inhabits his character, playing not only the dramatic moments but also making the awkward attempts at humor bearable. Miller’s Agave is all about the drama and is something of a one-scene wonder, only appearing during the play’s final moments. But the revelation of her character’s actions is ambitious and impressive.

Several members of the ensemble are given powerful monologues that rarely slow the pace of the show – instead they act as showcases for each performer, even those in otherwise minor roles. Freshman theatre arts and communication studies double major Gabriel Gonzalvez truly wrings every dramatic drop out of his monologue, breaking out of the simple Officer role and making an impact. Junior theatre arts major Nelia Miller gets multiple monologues as the leader of the slaves and knocks each and every one out of the park.

“The Bacchae of Euripides” is not without its faults, however. As mentioned previously, there are several incredibly lowbrow stabs at humor that fall short, especially considering the powerful scenes surrounding them. Why the otherwise devastatingly potent production chose to dilute the drama with painfully unfunny penis jokes and men in drag is beyond me. Additionally, there are several scenes of both the comic and tragic variety that seemed to last forever, affecting the pacing of the show negatively. This production is at its best when it is fast-moving and there’s plenty going on – watching one actor lecture another for 10 minutes is nothing but a hindrance.

Those scenes and choices, though unfortunate, cannot derail what is ultimately a brilliant production. “The Bacchae of Euripides” is more than just a play. It is art in motion with commanding performances by committed actors. It is not to be missed.

“The Bacchae of Euripedes” is now in the middle of its run at Strub Theatre. It has three shows remaining, starting with tonight’s performance, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Crucible

Review: ‘The Crucible’ favors volume over subtlety

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Review: ‘The Crucible’ favors volume over subtlety – Los Angeles Loyolan.

Crucible

Photo Credit: Justin Lai | The Los Angeles Loyolan

LMU’s theatre arts and dance department is currently in the middle of their run of “The Crucible,”Arthur Miller’s iconic play about the Salem witch trials. Written as an allegory for the ongoing Red Scare and the accusations of communism among Americans in hearings held by Senator Joe McCarthy, “The Crucible” is a staple of many English and theater departments in high schools and universities across the country.

The production, directed by Professor Nenad Pervan, is committed to wringing out every last moment of drama in the script, but does so in a heavy-handed manner that leaves the audience cold and tired after the cast has taken their final bow.

Throughout the performance, my one desire was to find a volume knob and twist it sharply downwards. If there were a knob for intensity, I would do the same. The whole show is simply over-the-top and overly long. At any point where there was a choice of loud versus soft or big versus small, Pervan seems to have chosen the bold, the brash and the bothersome.

Attempting to milk every moment of drama may have a temporary impact (scaring the audience into awe), but it comes at a serious cost. At least one major scene holds absolutely no power because it bears too much resemblance to all the other scenes preceding it: a lot of yelling and a lot of anger. It overdoses to the point where the supposed power scenes hold no power at all.

One particularly ill-advised scene comes near the end, which involves scare tactics and loud screaming. It simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the show and seems to have been thrown in just for the shock value. It shocks, yes, but it also annoys and colored my opinion of the production negatively.

This is obviously a talented cast with plenty of potential, yet most of it isn’t being used properly. Many of the female actors understand when to play up the drama and tone it down in ways their male counterparts don’t seem to understand. Emily Ludlow, a freshman theatre arts major, is particularly good, showing impressive range. Ludlow is aware that her character, Abigail Williams, is the clear antagonist, but she never attempts to gain the audience’s love in a way that would compromise the character.

Maddy Haderlein, a senior theatre arts major, plays cold incredibly well as Elizabeth Proctor, providing a strong counterpart to scene partner and fellow senior theatre arts major Devin Kasper. She, like Ludlow, never tries too hard to impress or dramatize. Elena Muslar, also a senior theatre arts major, isn’t given too much to do as Tituba, but she’s a highlight whenever she’s on stage. She isn’t afraid of being melodramatic, but she also knows how to avoid going overboard.

Several of the male actors do well in their roles: special kudos go to senior theatre arts major Jesse D. Arrow as Giles Corey, an absolute high-water mark. He’s incredibly fun and a breath of fresh air. But on the whole, the men are either underperforming (senior theatre arts major Connor Smith’s Thomas Putnam sounds a little sleepy) or doing nothing but ranting, raving and scene chewing. Part of this is the responsibility of the actors, but most of the fault falls on the director who didn’t guide them on how to better utilize their skills.

Special attention must be paid to the costuming by Gwynne Clark. The period detail is done to near perfection, with Abigail’s stark red outfit (signifying the great lust her character has buried deep within her) being a highlight. And the lighting, designed by Dan Washington, is impressive but at times overwhelming – one wishes the action onstage would be quieter so the truly superb lighting could be the star of the show.

It should be said that “The Crucible” has many wonderful elements to it that should draw you to the theater, but don’t be surprised if you’re left overwhelmed and unsatisfied. A good production has a lot of good elements. A great production utilizes those elements and brings them together in a really appealing, remarkable fashion. By that principle, “The Crucible” is a good production. But it is not a great one.