Stage Raw: Holiday Listings
COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS
NEW THEATER REVIEWS
STAGE FEATURE on Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited
To be honest, the quantity of theater playing this week in Los Angeles is about as thin as it gets. Still, our comprehensive LISTINGS are back up. Things do pick up in January, so stay tuned. Coming Wednesday night, a review of 2010 -- that would be the year, not the show.
FOR COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS, press the More tab directly below.
COMPREHENSIVE THEATER LISTINGS Dec. 24-30, 2010
Our critics are Pauline Adamek, Paul Birchall, Lovell Estell III, Rebecca Haithcoat, Martin Hernandez, Mayank Keshaviah, Deborah Klugman, Amy Lions, Steven Leigh Morris, Amy Nicholson, Tom Provenzano, Bill Raden, and Neal Weaver. These listings were compiled by Derek Thomas
Productions are sequenced alphabetically in the following cagtegories: Opening This Week, Larger Theaters regionwide, Smaller Theaters in Hollywood, Smaller Theaters in the valleys , Smaller Theaters on the Westside and in beach towns. You can also search for any play by title, using your computer's search engine.
OPENING THIS WEEK
STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG Patrick Bristow hosts Henson Alternative's "uncensored" improv puppet show. Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine; Wed., Dec. 29, 8 p.m.; Thurs., Dec. 30, 8 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 31, 7 & 10 p.m.; Sat., Jan. 1, 8 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 2, 4 p.m., StuffedAndUnstrung.com. (949) 854-4646.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN LARGER THEATERS REGIONWIDENEW REVIEW GO BROADWAY HOLIDAY Creator/musical director/producer/accompanist Neil Berg has assembled a rich garland of Broadway and movie showstoppers that, whether you call them old chestnuts or evergreens, are reliable crowd-pleasers. He's thrown in a choice selection of Christmas songs and recruited five seasoned Broadway pros to perform them: Carter Calvert, Jeffrey Denman, Rita Harvey, Marc Kudisch and Ivan Rutherford. All have fine voices, and the skill and savvy to deploy them to maximum effect. Harvey gives us a spectacular "I Could Have Danced All Night" and, with Rutherford, a full-bloodedly theatrical rendition of "The Phantom of the Opera." Rutherford eloquently performs "Something's Coming," from West Side Story and "Bring Him Home," from Les Miserables. Calvert offers a poignant "Memory," from Cats, and provides a rousing first-act finale with "Don't Rain on My Parade." Kudisch serves up "Where Is the Life That Late I Led," "If I Were a Rich Man," "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and, with Denman, a hilariously competitive "Oh Hanukah-O Christmas Tree." Denman calls on his nimble dancing as well as vocal skills in "Give My Regards to Broadway" and "Singin' in the Rain" and delivers a wonderfully mellow "White Christmas." And producer Berg performs a lush piano treatment of "Carol of the Bells." Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; schedule varies; check online for information. Through Jan. 2. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. (Neal Weaver)
THE CABRILLO 2010 HOLIDAY SPECTACULAR Starring Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy. Fred Kavli Theater, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. (Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza), Thousand Oaks; Fri., Dec. 24, 1 p.m.. (805) 449-2787.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL South Coast Rep's 31st season of the perennial holiday favorite. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Sun., 12 & 4 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 24. (714) 708-5555.NEW REVIEW DADDY LONG LEGS A classic of the "girl story" genre from the early 20th century, Jean Webster's novel is written as a series of letters from a female orphan to the mysterious benefactor who pays her way through college, insisting they never meet but that she write him once a month. This chamber theater piece, scripted by John Caird, follows the source material closely as Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) and her sponsor, Jervis (Robert Adelman Hancock), recite pieces of the correspondence, including some additional responses from Jervis not included in the original. The bulk of the production, however, consists of musicalized versions of the letters with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon. While the mise-en-scène is admirable -- from David Farley's costumes and sets to Paul Toben's lighting to sincere acting and skillful singing -- the event is simply unsatisfying as a piece of theater. It is mostly sung through with pretty accompaniment from musical director Julie McBride and her small orchestra, but the material itself is remarkably tedious. Though the program organizes the show into some 24 musical numbers, it feels more like one continuous recitative with very few break-out moments of melody. Dramatically it is equally placid, with just a few moments of tension relieving us from a dreary two-and-a-half-hour trajectory toward an expected outcome. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sun, 2 p.m., through Dec. 26. (949) 497-ARTS. (Tom Provenzano)
The Troubadour Theater Company, led by writer-director-star Matt Walker, is back at the Falcon Theatre for its annual Christmas show. This time, it's the nativity story set to 18 of Billy Joel's songs. The concocted yet sophisticated story permits them to break into song whenever possible, replacing Joel's original lyrics with their own twisted ones. Hence lyrics such as "We're having a child/But she's always a virgin to me." Bethlehem innkeepers Nicholas and Greta (Jack McGee and Lisa Valenzuela) have a daughter, Letty (Katie Nunez), who's pregnant and still undecided on marriage to gormless Manolo (Matt Morgan). Enter the three wise men, who've become two hard-boiled wise guys, Gold (Matt Walker) and Myr (Brandon Breault), plus Frankenstein (Morgan Rusler, who also doubles as Herod), incorporating a bit of Three Stooges-style slapstick into their appearance. But when another pregnant couple from out of town shows up, it turns out there's no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph (Katherine Malack and Matt Walker). Everyone is in good voice, especially Nunez and Valenzuela. The live five-piece band keeps the hit tunes pumping out under the musical direction of drummer Eric Heinly. Especially noteworthy are Hayan Charlston's sizzling sax and clarinet performances. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 4 & 8 p.m., Sun., 4 & 7 p.m., through Jan. 16. (Pauline Adamek)
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Interactive kids' musical, book and lyrics by Lloyd J. Schwartz, music by Ben Lanzarone. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A.; Sat., 1 p.m.; thru Feb. 26. (323) 851-7977.
GO NEXT TO NORMAL Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning family tragedy is that rarity of rarities: a Broadway show that's as good as its hype. One might walk into the theater expecting to see a Mental Illness of the Week family tearjerker, but what one gets is a richly wise and searing musical about madness and sorrow, rage and forgiveness. The show's opening ferocious quartet, "Just Another Day," presents a family in deep emotional rot. Diana (original Broadway cast member Alice Ripley, reprising her towering turn) is clearly mentally ill, and haunted by the ghost of her long-dead son, Gabe (Curt Hansen) -- but Diana's enabling, desperately bewildered husband, Dan (Asa Somers), is unraveling just as fast. Meanwhile, their unhappy, emotionally neglected daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton), finding it too hard to compete against the memory of her dead brother, drifts into drugs and depression. Director Michael Greif's staging is fierce and dynamic: One might expect a story on these themes to be heavy and dreary, but the production crackles with energy and intensity. Scenic designer Mark Wendland's surreal, three-level, cagelike set at first seems like an odd fit for this family tale, but the way the characters romp all over the structure elegantly illustrates the madness in Diana's mind. Kitt and Yorkey's score may consist of memorable, fin-de-millennium rock numbers, but the music also engenders heightened realism with operatic grandeur. We're particularly lucky for the opportunity to see Ripley's reprise of her original Diana -- her ferocious renditions of "I Miss the Mountains" and "You Don't Know" are likely to be the decade's most memorable show tunes. Also compelling are Hansen's sweet, oddly disturbing Gabe and Hunton's vulnerable and self-damaging Natalie. (Paul Birchall). Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Jan. 2, centertheatregroup.org/normal. (213) 628-2772.
ROCK WITH YOU: THE KING OF POP, LATIN STYLE The music and dance of Michael Jackson re-orchestrated to hot Latin rhythms. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 6 & 9 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 2, rockwithyoutour.com. (818) 508-0281.
GO WEST SIDE STORY If you've ever come across a letter or diary entry written by a younger version of a parent or grandparent, a whole new window into that person opens up, humanizing them in a way that may otherwise have seemed impossible. This touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival does the same for Jerome Robbins' musical set in 1950s New York and loosely adapted from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Not only are the members of the Jets and Sharks more menacing, libidinous and raw, but large portion of Laurents' book and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics have been translated into Spanish, rounding out the sabor of the Puerto Rican characters and taking them beyond caricature and stereotype. In a sense, this production could be considered more faithful to Robbins' original vision than any to date. David Saint's crisply paced direction crescendos at the appropriate moments without spilling over into brassy Broadway-gasms, and James Youmans' "industrial minimalism" design features strong diagonals accentuated by Howell Binkley's angular lighting. The delicately powerful soprano of Ali Ewoldt (Maria) plays well against the resonant baritone of Kyle Harris (Tony), and both are skillfully utilized by musical director John O'Neill, who holds the musical numbers close to the brink of a climax without providing a release until the last possible moment. And though their contributions are more theatrical than vocal, Mike Boland (Krupke) and Christopher Patrick Mullen (Lt. Schrank) serve as the menacing long arm of the law, instead of the stooges they're often played as. As a result, the overriding authenticity of the piece keeps this classic as dangerous, edgy and relevant as ever. (Mayank Keshaviah). Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m.; Thurs., 2 & 8 p.m.; Fri., 2 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Jan. 2. (800) 982-ARTS.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN THEATERS LOCATED IN HOLLYWOOD, WEST HOLLYWOOD AND THE DOWNTOWN AREAS
AFTER SCHOOL GROUNDLINGS All-new sketch and improv, directed by Heather Morgan. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 8 & 10 p.m.; thru Jan. 28. (323) 934-9700.
ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. SUNDAY Jordan Black directs the Groundlings Sunday Company. Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.. (323) 934-9700.
NEW REVIEW GO BOB BAKER'S NUTCRACKER Need a novel gift idea that'll be met with more gratitude than yet another candle or cashmere scarf? Borrow someone's children for the morning and take them to Jerry Griswold's marionette version of Tchaikovsky's ballet. Not only is the traditional staging a little tired -- interpretations such as The Nutcracker Swings and Mixed Nutz prove that -- but it's also a little long for wriggly kids hopped up on holiday goodies. A swift hourlong pop-up storybook of a show that lets the puppets do the dancing, this production ranks second on a kid's wish list behind only the Candy Land board game being real. Tailored to short attention spans, each song brings a new trick. Sitting around the "stage," which is just the blue portion of the room's carpet, kids' eyes grew wide as a parade of characters trotted by, or a shadow orchestra attacked the overture, or Slinky-like flutes formed words and pictures. No matter how you feel about children, very little compares to their brand of anticipatory excitement. Near the grand finale, a disco ball throws its confetti on the floor. As "oohs" and "aahs" chimed, little hands lurched out in an effort to grab the furiously flitting lights. Sure, it's a show for them, but to this adult, the holidays seemed more magical in that hour than they had in years. Puppeteers rotate, but the cast at the performance reviewed was focused and strong. Bob Baker Marionette Theater, 1345 W. First St.; Tues.-Fri., 10:30 a.m., Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m., through Jan. 16. (213) 250-9995. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
GO CAUGHT In the aftermath of Proposition 8 passing in November 2008, one of the regrets of those who fought valiantly for gay marriage and against the proposition was that enough wasn't done to "normalize" gay couples. And while the events in David L. Ray's world-premiere play take place in July 2008, Caught furthers the cause by dramatizing one of those healthy relationships. In it, Angelenos Kenneth (Corey Brill) and Troy (Will Beinbrink) are on the eve of their nuptials, a ceremony that will be officiated by their friend Splenda (Micah McCain), who is ordained via the Internet. This blissful scene is interrupted by a visit from Kenneth's estranged sister, Darlene (Deborah Puette), who is very Southern and very Christian, as well as her daughter, Krystal (Amanda Kaschak). In the interludes between scenes, we also see Darlene's husband, T.J. (Richard Jenik), preaching to his conservative congregation in Georgia. Secrets, lies and surprising revelations fuel the drama. Director Nick DeGruccio deftly takes Ray's strong and likable characters from page to stage, sparingly playing up stereotypes for comedy without ever reducing the characters to them. Adding to the authenticity are Adam Flemming's delightfully detailed set and Katherine Hampton Noland's colorful couture. Adding to the emotional investment in the story is a talented cast; standouts include Puette, for her rich and intense portrayal of Darlene; McCain, for balancing divalike comedy with deep sincerity; and Kaschak, for combining fresh-faced innocence and a willfulness to create a very believable teenager. (Mayank Keshaviah). Zephyr Theater, 7456 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 26, 7 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 2, 7 p.m.; thru Jan. 23, (No perfs Dec. 24-25 & 31.) CaughtThePlay.com. (800) 595-4849.
COLD LANG SYNE With its vexingly mundane chitchat, the first act of Gregory Blair's patchy whodunit scuppers what could have been a strong play. Men who are old friends and their dates/spouses gather at a cabin (Mike Jespersen's impressive mock-up) for a New Year's Eve bash hosted by Trevor (Douglas Myers) and his wife, Aggy (Holly Montgomery-Webb). Present are Perry and Leanne (Mikhail Blokh and Sandra Purpuro), a detective named Garth (Les Brandt) and his lover, Denny (Dwight Turner), and Mark and Helen (Michael Harris, Bobbi Berkmen). The play doesn't show a pulse until the stroke of midnight, when one of the characters suddenly keels over. Most of Act 2 takes a fairly predictable turn, with Garth assuming the lead role in the hunt for the murderer. Unfortunately, the process, which sometimes borders on the ludicrous, doesn't offer much in the way of suspense. Blair somewhat redeems his play with the run-up to a truly unexpected plot twist at the end, but it's still too little, too late. Douglas Green directs. Ipso Facto Theatricals and Pix/See Productions. (Lovell Estell III). Ruby Theater at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Dec. 31, (No perf Dec. 24.) plays411.com/coldlangsyne. (323) 960-4412.
DOUG LOVES MOVIES Free. Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, 5919 Franklin Ave., L.A.; Tues., 7:30 p.m.. (323) 908-8702.NEW REVIEW GO GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW Director Damon Jones incorporates some winning ideas in this holiday-themed show, making it one of the best this reviewer has seen here in some time. By greatly increasing the number of improv sections and embellishing them with some imaginative directorial twists, Jones fully utilizes the considerable comedic talents of his cast (Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, Charlotte Newhouse, David Hoffman, Steve Little, Laird Macintosh, Jillian Bell). In one segment, cast members were asked to do improvisations according to the styles of different film directors, and the results were amazing. Jones also has thrown in some colorful costuming schemes, nowhere more apparent than in the hilarious skit "Kringle 5," featuring Santa Claus as a space pirate battling hostile aliens and lesbian crew members. Other skits that corralled big laughs were "Nativity Scene," where an irate boss tries to find out who ate Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the manger; "The Last Temptation," which finds some holy folks carried away by their sensual sides; and the dangerously funny "Baby New Year," where Steven Little, dressed in diapers, hat and pacifier, shares his own brand of holiday cheer with the audience. Groundlings Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; closed. (Lovell Estell III)
GO JEWTOPIA It's been a little more than seven years since the long-running original comedy was last seen in the City of Angels. This revival is far more compact, less jaunty and slightly more cerebral. Nonetheless, the show is even funnier. It starts when childhood buddies Chris O'Connell and Adam Lipschitz (Conor Dubin and Adam Korson) happen across each other at a party for Jewish singles. Chris, a Catholic, says that he wants to marry a Jew so he "never has to make another decision," while the socially inept Adam is on the scene only to please his nagging mother, who wants him to find a nice Jewish girl. So the guys make a pact: Chris will show Adam the finer points of picking up women, if Adam will reciprocate by showing Chris the particulars of being Jewish. It's a scenario fully charged with comedic possibilities, and writer-director Bryan Fogel mines it for all its subterranean treasures -- taking aim at cultural stereotypes, customs, P.C. junkies. Korson and Dubin have magnetic chemistry and formidable skills. Rounding out a splendid cast are Thea Brooks, Bart Braverman, Cheryl David, Mark Sande and Cheryl Daro. (Lovell Estell III). Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3:30 p.m.; thru Jan. 2. (323) 655-7679.
KEEP IT CLEAN COMEDY Hosted by JC Coccoli., Free. 1739 Public House, 1739 N. Vermont Ave., L.A.; Mon., 10:30 p.m.. (323) 663-1739.
GO POINT BREAK LIVE! Jaime Keeling's merciless skewering of the 1991 hyper-action flick starring Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey is loaded with laughs, as well as surprises, like picking an audience member to play Reeves' role of Special Agent Johnny Utah. It's damn good fun, cleverly staged by directors Eve Hars, Thomas Blake and George Spielvogel. (LE3). Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri., 8:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.. (866) 811-4111.
GO THE TRAIN DRIVER South African playwright Athol Fugard's plays have dealt with the havoc wrought in his country by apartheid, but his more recent works also often possess the feel of a ghost story, as they grow to encompass the guilt and grief that were the legacy of his homeland's decades of racial inequity. This is particularly true in his powerful new play, in which the spirits of the forgotten dead are all around us, unseen. As he drives his locomotive through the black shantytown area of the city, Roelf (Morlan Higgins) accidentally runs over a mother and infant, after the mother commits suicide by stepping onto the tracks before Roelf can stop. There's nothing the train driver could have done to save them, but he is consumed with guilt over his role in the death. At the graveyard where indigent, unidentified bodies are buried, Roelf searches for the dead mother's grave so he can expiate his guilt. Elderly, impoverished grave digger Simon (Adolphus Ward) is sympathetic, but also desperate to send Roelf home, before the white driver's presence in the black region of the country causes disaster. Although Fugard's plot is narratively smaller than what is found in many of his other plays, the overall mood of sorrow and resigned, barely controlled rage at how the universe is arranged is powerfully palpable. A deep-seated, thought-provoking pessimism about men's nature is constantly evident. Director Stephen Sachs' character-driven production is stunning, from the dusty squalor of Jeff McLaughlin's desolate, gravel-covered shanty set to the dense, evocative acting work. Higgins' mingled rage and sorrow -- anger over being forced to kill someone he didn't know, along with his grief over the pair's death -- is powerful, but it's Ward's slightly ironic, underplayed turn as the grave digger that captures attention every moment he's onstage. Fugard has written that the play is a metaphor for the moral blindness of an overclass that has ignored the plight of the hopeless -- but the play cunningly concludes with a tragic coda suggesting that, to the underclass, even white guilt is a luxury that harms more than it heals. (Paul Birchall). Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 30. (323) 663-1525.
NEW REVIEW URNED HAPPINESS Laughter may be the best medicine when grief's symptoms won't subside, but in Ernest Kearney's thinly plotted comedy about a family's collective wacky reaction to the death of their maligned matriarch, the prescription runs out fast. Kim (Julie Mann) and Maggie (Kal Bennett) have just arrived home from their mother's funeral. We quickly learn that the deceased was as tender with her children as a lion with a steak, but the uptight Maggie struggles to maintain a proper degree of respect for the dead while Kim cracks wise. As the women grapple with their hate-tinged, guilt-ridden grief, they also fight over ownership of mom's ashes: No one wants the old lady's urn. Complicating matters are the husbands, Lloyd (Joe Corgan), who hated mom so much that he split the scene when Julie took on the caretaker role in mom's final days, and Randy (Gary Rubenstein), an emasculated wuss with no intention of honoring his browbeating late mother-in-law by agreeing to accept the urn. Kearney, who also directs, is wise to take a stab at mining the potential humor in the postmortem scenario, but the corny jokes fall flat in the hands of unpolished performances. The rising action peaks with the entrance of a clown hired to play the funeral, a groaner of a gag that clunks and creaks the second it hits the stage. T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., through Jan. 23. (800) 838-3006. (Amy Lyons)
THE ZOMBIE HOLIDAY SPECIAL This irreverent departure from the customary Yuletide fare has some gleaming moments of comedy, but not enough to leave a lasting impression. It's formatted as a Christmas TV special hosted by a family whose members consist of the living and the undead. Mom and Dad (Patrick Bristow and Peggy Etra) have that squeaky-clean '50 sitcom look, as does son Gavin (Grant Baciocco), daughter Merry (Vanessa Whitney) and lovable ol' Grandma (Alison Mork). There's even a token Jew named David (Matt Vlahakis), who sports a yarmulke and prayer shawl. The comic sizzle comes from Jayne Entwistle as Holly and Chris Sheets as Grandpa; both are green-faced zombies joining the festivities postmortem. Despite director Bristow's best efforts to sustain the humor, overkill sets in and the jokes wear thin. The cast really shines during the improvisational segments. In one hilarious instance, the family puts on a display of culinary pizzazz, accompanied by a hilarious musical ditty. (Lovell Estell III). Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Jan. 15, (No perfs De. 25 & Jan. 1.) plays411.com/zombieholiday. (323) 960-7612.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED IN THE VALLEYS
BULLSHOT CRUMMOND AND THE INVISIBLE BRIDE OF DEATH A sense of humor can be a funny thing. In 1972, when creators Ron House and Diz White first burlesqued the patriotic, globe-hopping adventurer hero from H.C. McNeile's Bulldog Drummond pulp novels, the archetype of the stiff-upper-lip, sex-oblivious British adventurer was a cultural cliché overripe for satire. Monty Python's Flying Circus became a TV legend, roasting such hackneyed chestnuts. Thirty-five years, three wars and a sexual and digital revolution later, however, writer-director House's witless and laugh-challenged misfire of a "sequel" only illustrates how far the comedy gestalt has shifted. The unflappable, horse-hung Hugh Crummond (Oliver Muirhead) is back, this time newly wedded to the not-yet-bedded gal pal/sidekick Rosemary Fenton (Anastasia Roussel), when duty calls. Seems that arch villain Otto Von Bruno (Christian Rummel) has teamed with mad scientist Dr. Morton Fenwick (Rodger Bumpass) to bring down the British Empire with an army of invisible henchmen. But there's a limit to what even this otherwise fine ensemble can do with material tuned to the sensibility of a naughty British schoolboy, circa 1958. (Think Topper padded out with puerile dick jokes and overstretched double entendres.) Edwin Peraza's sound and Stephanie Schoelzel's costumes lend polish to a production that never should have left the drawing board. (Bill Raden). Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan. 16, bullshotisback.com. (800) 595-4849.
INSPECTING CAROL In Daniel Sullivan and Seattle Repertory Company's holiday-themed comedy, the dozen or so members of a small, Midwestern regional theater troupe are facing a crisis: They are planning to restage their annual tired fund-raising production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and their meager operating budget depends heavily on a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. But when the company board members are informed that their annual endowment may not be renewed, panic sets in. An inspector has been dispatched to assess their eligibility, which sets everyone's already frayed nerves on edge. Among the eccentric and disgruntled cast members rehearsing the play, squabbling and useless suggestions abound. Meanwhile, obnoxious traveling actor Wayne (Doug Haverty) talks his way into gaining an audition with the beleaguered company. Could he be the government inspector whose arrival they are all dreading? Will sucking up to him help save the company? An adaptation of Gogol's farce The Inspector General woven into a lampoon of Dickens' chestnut, as well as a parody of our arts-funding system (or lack thereof), this annually reprised production suffers from jokes that consistently fall flat. Under Chris Winfield's staging, the humor is as buoyant as a punctured party balloon. Add some spectacularly woeful acting (and not just when they are pretending to be bad actors), and you have a painful night of theater. (Pauline Adamek). Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Jan. 2, (No perf Dec. 24.) thegrouprep.com.. (818) 700-4878.
IT'S JUST SEX Jeff Gould's comedy takes the underpinnings of sexual fantasy, fidelity and money and puts all of those nuances onstage in a contemporary comedy about three married couples. The wife-swapping plot is straight out of Hugh Hefner's pad, circa 1975. That the play resonates today, in the ashes of the sexual revolution, is one indication of how little has changed, despite how much has changed. (Steven Leigh Morris). Two Roads Theater, 4348 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.. (818) 762-2272.
GO REMEMBERING THE LADIES Toni Morrell wasn't born on a stage, but you'd be hard-pressed to believe that after seeing her live. She thrust herself there early enough, anyway. Lying about her age, she began her career at 14, working the "tough crowds" of men's clubs full of steelworkers and miners in England. Strategizing to win them over, she probably sang many of the songs made popular by the ladies she salutes in this musical review. As she alternates between taking center stage herself and serenading a screen projecting images of Broadway and film stars, her tribute is heartfelt, though it feels a little homemade. The show's a chronological grab bag -- the comparatively current Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time" is stuck in the middle of Act 1 -- and its theme grows just too broad (a musical PSA on Tippi Hedren's big cat sanctuary, Shambala?) to shape into a tidy, cohesive production. Morrell's a queen of ad libs and witty audience interaction; knocking down the giant, wobbly structure and reconstructing the show as a cozy lounge act would better support her talents. Director and longtime producer Karen G. Cadle dishes about the divas in the second act (at age 80, she claims, Tippi Hedren only wears thong underwear!), fun for voyeuristic, tabloid-obsessed audiences. (Rebecca Haithcoat). El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 3 p.m.; Wed., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 29, (No perf Dec. 25.). (866) 811-4111.
SANTASIA Yuletide yuks, brought to you by A Loser's Kids Productions. Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Dec. 24, santasia.com. (866) 811-4111.
THE SECRET GARDEN The kids' lit classic turned musical, book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Lucy Simon. Chance Theatre, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim; Sun., Dec. 26, 2 & 7 p.m., chancetheater.com. (714) 777-3033.
GO SWEET MAMA STRING BEAN: A CELEBRATION OF BLUES WOMAN ETHEL WATERS The unwanted product of violence -- her mother was raped at knifepoint when only 12 -- Ethel Waters grew up in the slums of Philadelphia during the early 1900s. She ran with a rough street crowd and developed a hustler's sassy attitude. By the time she fled her own abusive marriage at just 14, she had a soulful singing voice that would draw attention at parties. Soon after, Waters was singing the blues onstage to appreciative crowds while living the rough life of touring on the black vaudeville circuit; eventually she became the highest-paid black recording star in the country, the first female black singer to be heard on radio and, later, the highest-paid female performer on Broadway. She brought the house down at New York's Cotton Club singing "Stormy Weather" and won a Grammy Award in 1933. Waters was the second black performer to be nominated for an Academy Award, for her performance in Pinky (1949). ValLimar Jansen brings Waters' distinguished career to the stage with a fine jazz trio, accompanied by husband Frank Jansen on keyboards. Wearing glittering gowns and feathered headdresses, ValLimar wraps merry humor and an indomitable spirit around her engaging performance as she skips and shimmies her way through 16 classic blues songs, and her mellifluous, full-bodied voice has the depth of strong coffee. (Pauline Adamek). Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan. 2, fremontcentretheatre.com. (866) 811-4111.
CONTINUING PERFORMANCES IN SMALLER THEATERS SITUATED ON THE WESTSIDE AND IN BEACH TOWNSNEW REVIEW GO DIVA ON THE VERGE
In her compelling one-woman show, soprano Julia Migenes, who has sung more leading roles at more opera houses than you've had hot dinners, offers a solo show that is a true-life analog of Terrence McNally's play Master Class. However, Migenes is the real thing -- a bona fide, card-carrying prima donna of the larger-than-life school -- and the story of her life in art is both lighthearted and unpretentious, simultaneously celebrating opera and sending it up. For all her operatic pedigree, which includes the renowned 1984 film version of Carmen with Placido Domingo, Migenes cleverly positions herself here as an "anti-opera" opera star, with a narrative patter (credited to her and Bruce Vilanch) that spoofs various operatic traditions, while still dazzling us with renditions of the arias themselves. Thus, Migenes dons a goofy white shroud to comically satirize the over-the-top libretto of the madness scene from Lucia di Lammermoor at the same time her gorgeous coloratura rendering of the song is perfect. She jokes about the ridiculous death scenes from La Traviata and Tristan and Isolde, even as her voice hauntingly conveys the genuine feeling of the music's heightened realism. Credited to director Travis Preston, the show first played here 10 years ago; since then, the piece has evolved into a lighter, breezier work that emphasizes folksy general opera stories over Migenes' actual biography, which would frankly be welcome. When she's telling her story, Migenes exudes a sultry sophistication and a dry wit; when she sings (accompanied by Victoria Kirsch's excellently evocative piano playing), she's every bit the diva she purports to be, making this a unique and captivating experience. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 24-25, Dec. 31, Jan. 6), through Jan. 9. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)
ISLAND OF BRILLIANCE Emily (Ava Bogle) is a savant with an IQ of 40. (Her family is touchy about the preface "idiot.") She can recite any work from memory -- even Hamlet -- but her gift for words can only duplicate, not create, great literature. That is, until younger sister Evie (Jill Renner), a high school senior applying to Princeton, Yale and Dartmouth, starts secretly feeding Emily her own poems, deceptively simple and stirring pieces that the bedridden girl starts parroting back to the amazement and joy of her mother (Nancy Linehan Charles), a local English teacher (Bill Lithgow) and a public access reporter (Mary Jane). When one child sucks up all the oxygen in the house, how long until the other daughter suffocates? Dawn O'Leary's drama alternates between their home and awkward college admission interviews that show Evie is so cowed by her sister's needs (or really, her mother's needs for Emily) that Evie is her own worst advocate. She's honest, humble and as untrained as a puppy: In one Q&A, she cracks a joke about the drunk students on campus; in another, she assures the questioner that she won't commit suicide if she doesn't get in. The script and Wynn Marlow's direction are too on the nose to let this fascinating family dynamic stretch and settle in. Much of the ensemble members are still getting comfortable with their characters, and Renner comes off as so blinkered and cheery that Evie seems immunized against the pressures she faces. In Act 2, her manic grin gets so big that it threatens to overshadow the more subtle themes of sacrifice and loyalty, and a last-second twist bruises the play's credibility. But the bones of the story are strong, and O'Leary has an ear for a good poem and memorable line. (Amy Nicholson). Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan. 16. (310) 822-8392.
GO JULIA Playwright Vince Melocchi's sweet, melancholy drama artfully makes the point that, of all the sorrows, nothing beats the sadness of being haunted by guilt over a long-ago romantic misdeed. Lou (Richard Fancy), a frail old man who clearly does not have too much sand left in the hourglass, shambles into a run-down Pittsburgh coffeehouse, ostensibly to witness the razing of the local department store where he worked some 50 years ago. However, his real purpose in returning to the scene is an attempted reconciliation with his long-lost sweetheart, Julia, whom he feels guilty for spurning many years ago. However, Julia (Roses Prichard), who now has Alzheimer's disease, doesn't even remember her own son, Steve (Keith Stevenson). Melocchi's writing is deceptively top-heavy with conversations that at first appear pointless but gradually coalesce to construct the psychological underpinnings of strikingly plausible blue-collar characters. In director Guillermo Cienfuegos' mostly subtle and emotionally nuanced production, the pacing could stand some amping up, but the feeling of reality encompassed by the interactions and confrontations is haunting at times. In his turn as the gruff, cranky Lou, Fancy builds on our expectation that the character is a feeble old coot, gradually shifting him into a figure whose regret and rage are all too understandable. Prichard is unusually believable as the tragically blank Julia. Dramatically vivid work also is offered by Stevenson's glum, disappointed Steve and by Haskell Vaughn Anderson III, as a family friend who remembers all the parties when they were young. (Paul Birchall). Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Jan. 30. (310) 822-8392.
SISTER'S CHRISTMAS CATECHISM Maripat Donovan's nun searches for the Maji gold. North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Solana Beach; Through Dec. 24, 7:30 p.m.. (858) 481-2155.