Los Angeles Theater Reviews: WALKIN’ IN A WINTER ONE-HIT-WONDERLAND (Falcon Theatre); ALADDIN AND HIS WINTER WISH (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Jason Rohrer on December 16, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


The Troubadour Theater Company opened a self-congratulatory love story Friday night, blowing a kiss to its own repertoire with its tenth annual holiday song-and-dance show at the Falcon.  (They have done more than ten holiday shows, but not all of them at Garry Marshall’s lovely theater.)  When some companies do this kind of auto-homage, it’s an embarrassing, exclusionary rip-off that recycles numbers the cast likes doing.  Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland is not that kind of show.  The Troubies are not that company.

Matt Walker and ‘Winter Warlock’ (Beth Kennedy) in Troubadour Theater Company’s Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland at the Falcon Theatre.Opening night, nearly the entire audience had already seen at least one Troubadours show.  See, every Troubadour show dances the dangerous line of in-joke and new material, but it has yet to fall off the tightrope in front of me.  This time, Matt Walker and his impeccably professional troupe cavort for just under ninety minutes of high-stepping, high-note-hitting good humor.

This show is one of their occasional departures from a traditional Troubadour formula mashing up a familiar story with a famous pop act (Two Gentlemen of Chicago managed to meld Shakespeare and a brass-heavy rock band; Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindoors told the story of Santa’s favorite beast of burden with a little help from the Jim Morrison songbook).  Lacking the assistance of Shakespeare or Rankin/Bass, this one isn’t as well-plotted as many in the company’s repertoire.  It doesn’t matter much.

The cast of Troubadour Theater Company’s Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland at the Falcon Theatre.It’s not their first “one-hit wonder”-themed presentation, but it is the first time the beloved, oft-repeated character Winter Warlock has carried his own show.  The Warlock (Beth Kennedy, on no-shit stilts, in Sharon McGunigle’s claymation-on-acid costume) was originally a character in the1970 Rankin/Bass television special Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town; his appearance in all sorts of unlikely scenarios is a function of the Troubadour’s obsession with 70s and 80s TV nostalgia.  Borrowing heavily from A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life (the company’s done spoofs of both), the plot imagines the impact upon the lives of the Warlock, other characters from the Troubie repertoire, and their fans if the Warlock were to quit show business.

Lisa Valenzuela, Matt Walker, Katie Nuñez and Katherine Donahoe in Troubadour Theater Company’s Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland at the Falcon Theatre.Solipsism should always be this sexy.  Very little is as hot as a talented, quick-witted beauty, and this company hasn’t got anything else.  These people are funny as hell in a pretty-much-family-safe, edgy-enough-to-be-hip, master-level-proficiency sort of way.  The no-weak-links cast sings Devo and Gotye, Ah-Ha and The Fixx, and ten or fifteen other briefly-noted tunesters, interspersing these numbers (choreographed by Christine Lakin, Douglas Leadwell, and balletic stunner Suzanne Jolie Narbonne) with headliner-quality patter and sketches more hit than miss.

Katherine Donahoe, Lisa Valenzuela, Katie Nuñez, Rick Batalla and Suzanne Jolie Narbonne in Troubadour Theater Company’s Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland at the Falcon Theatre.The loose format allows for a good deal of off-the-cuff crowd work; Mr. Walker and Rick Batalla trade MC duties, and it’s hard to choose between them for charm and presence of mind.  Like everyone except the sharp and dexterous Ms. Kennedy (who has to remain ten feet in the air the whole time), they also play multiple outrageous characters from the Troubie canon.  Toothsome ladies in slinky dresses (Ms. Narbonne, Lisa Valenzuela, Katie Nuñez, and Katharine Donahoe) belt, kick, and ham it up through routines both simple and complex; Andy Lopez swings in several roles, getting on stilts himself at one point.

Andy Lopez and ‘Winter Warlock’ (Beth Kennedy) in Troubadour Theater Company’s Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland at the Falcon Theatre.Some elements are less successful than others.  Repeated video projections (by Mr. Batalla, Jim Kunz, and Greg Wilson) on a large, central screen crossed my line of fan-goodwill-indulgence a few times, interrupting the action for redundant reminders of shows past.  But if the storytelling gets messy at times, it’s also never more than a few moments from a funny joke, a well-sung song, a delightful dance.  (Live musical accompaniment provided by musical director and drummer Eric Heinly; keyboardist Kevin McCourt; and alternating bassists Dana Decker and Kevin Stewart.)

Rick Batalla and ‘Winter Warlock’ (Beth Kennedy) in Troubadour Theater Company’s Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland at the Falcon Theatre.Even an ensemble this good couldn’t do a show this loose without a tight, tight booth.  Stage manager Corey Womack has 400 cues to call in a show that has dropped twenty minutes of material since previews began.  So if any of those cues had gone awry opening night, it would have been forgivable; but if any did, I didn’t see it.  However, one of the dangers of last-minute changes is that your designers’ work is already done and unlikely to change.  Jeremy Pivnick, among the most exhaustive lighting designers, leaves some of the Wonderland cast in the dark some of the time, less likely a mark of his error than of the production’s late-stage evolution.  Jeff McLaughlin’s simplicity-as-a-virtue set suffers less from this type of change-up, since he once again uses curtains and screens as the primary razzle-dazzle element in an expanse of nice places to do a show.


As if to provide a counterpoint to the Troubies’ general excellence, Pasadena Playhouse is now hosting  Aladdin and His Winter Wish, a shiny jukebox panto from the family that classed up our culture with television behemoths American (L-R) Jordan Fisher, Ben Giroux, Bruce Vilanch and Ben Vereen in ALADDIN AND HIS WINTER WISH at The Pasadena Playhouse.Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.  But with a hundred times the Troubadour budget, affording multiple sets and scrims and drops and props, Lythgoe Family Productions has effectively hired Ben Vereen and Bruce Vilanch to stuff a lump of shit down your stocking.  It’s the sort of show that makes a vice of virtues such as audience involvement: Booed every time he comes onstage, the evil wizard Abanazar (an excellent Josh Adamson) quips to a front row patron, “You think it’s hard watching this show? Try being in it!”  As if this Hope/Crosby “Road To…” picture wannabe weren’t painful enough, try viewing it from the torture implements the Playhouse calls seats.

Richard Karn and Josh Adamson in ALADDIN AND HIS WINTER WISH at The Pasadena Playhouse.This nonsensical Kris Lythgoe script (drawing upon previously published material, including the Disney Aladdin movie, to an extent that feels criminally plagiarist), presumes the stupidity of children and imposes upon the patience of adults.  After Abanazar spends a whole scene hypnotizing the Sultan (Richard Karn) to marry him to the Princess Yasmin (Ashley Argota), one does not expect the Sultan to blithely marry his daughter to Aladdin (Jordan Fisher) a half-hour later, as if those extra fly-drops and set dressings hadn’t been built and shoved onstage at all.  It’s very much as if the writer wishes us to forget that ten unprofitable minutes of unfunny plot point had taken center stage in the first place.  The kids sitting around me noticed, as they noticed that the show was too long and too boring to excuse a half-dozen similar idiocies.  They were vocal about their displeasure (I heard “Get me out of here NOW!” from a moppet behind me, and “Is it over?” from at least three different urchins).  I complained, too.  But we were drowned out by the amplified popping and scratching of the body-miked cast; and when your parents have spent up to $106 on your ticket, you’re staying put.  My editor has a similar theory, so there we were.

Ben Vereen in ALADDIN AND HIS WINTER WISH at The Pasadena Playhouse.As Aladdin, Mr. Fisher keeps his singing and acting talents under wraps; his director, Bonnie Lythgoe, gives him room to R&B his way, unironically, through some of the worst pop music of the last fifty years (including Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride,” a song I’d hoped never to hear again since I quit hanging around video arcades in 1984).  Before a singer gets this idiosyncratic, breaking up notes with Star Search Sturm und Drang, it’s a good idea for him to learn to sing on stage.  A strong contender, he ends up losing the chiseled-abs trophy to the Slave of the Ring (Vanessa Nichole), who also beats out a strong field of midriff-baring dancers and a bunch of adorable, talented children (including the outrageously enthusiastic Bailey Sok, who successfully stole scenes from Mr. Vereen and Mr. Vilanch, no mean feat for someone too young to have one-twentieth their experience).  Spencer Liff’s choreography uses many of the same dance moves the Troubies use in their show, but even with an all-pro cast, Aladdin limps where the two-ringers-and-all-heart Wonderland soars.

Ben Vereen, Jordan Fisher and ensemble in ALADDIN AND HIS WINTER WISH at The Pasadena Playhouse.

Walkin’ in a Winter One-Hit-Wonderland
Troubadour Theater Company
Falcon Theatre in Burbank
scheduled to end on January 19, 2014
for tickets, call (818) 955-8101 or visit www.FalconTheatre.com
photos by Chelsea Sutton

Aladdin and his Winter Wish
Lythgoe Family Productions
Pasadena Playhouse
scheduled to end on December 29, 2013
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
photos by Clarence Alford

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