Los Angeles Theater Review: CHARM (Celebration Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on September 11, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


It’s an irresistible setting seen in many successful films and plays: When an underdog teacher shapes her troubled teenaged students, she is rewarded by bucking a system that all but excludes the seemingly hopeless youth. Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins (The Homosexuals, Failure: A Love Story) gives the genre a refreshing new context, one which is based on the influence of a real-life volunteer educator: Miss Gloria Allen, a transgendered, sixty-something African-American who—before her death from diabetes—singularly taught a popular and controversial class in “charm,” transforming a small basement-like room in Chicago’s LGBTQ Center into a finishing school for low-income, transgendered, and often homeless teens.

lana-houston-stars-in-celebration-theatres-charmIn Charm, a west coast premiere at Celebration Theatre, Allen is transformed into Mama Darleena Andrews, who teaches her “fab-U-lous” etiquette class as a “gift” to a rude world that doesn’t just marginalize transitional children—it bullies them into brutal and unaccountable misfits. Inspired by that mistress of manners Emily Post, Mama has rewritten her sad, abused past life. Now she promises to “trans”form her seven students so they can manage their sexual and psychic evolution with grace, dignity and, well, charm.

Dawkins’ episodic treatment impressively juggles nine characters who are well-crafted and given equal attention. One senses this play as a celebration of Allen, so it’s easy to forgive truncated scenes in search of a true plot. We can also look past the somewhat forced and predictable obstacles yielding to unsatisfactory feel-good outcomes as each character receives a revelation—either on or off stage. And since this is a play about people, it simply stops rather than completing the storylines of the characters. As such, the piece is oddly reluctant to confront a central question: Can a “charm” offensive really alter the world? What good is all your elegant behavior if, like most of us, you never get to enjoy a high tea in the main lounge of the Drake Hotel anyway? Still, there’s plenty here, and Dawkins is always admirable for writing scripts which are neither trifling nor easy.


Director Michael Matthews has no problem placing his actors in interesting arrangements, and his trademark choreographic staging is well-suited to this show (although the highly synchronized scene changes with marching actors is becoming an overused device for Matthews). The misfire in this production is the inconsistent ensemble, a curse of Los Angeles Theater. In this case, enough actors are cast more for their physicality than their sensibility and acting chops; as such, some seem to struggle for identity, purpose, and motivation.


As a result on opening night in the very tiny Lex Theatre, there was enough screeching, pushing, shouting, and overwrought emotion to diminish what could have been a charming production. And while Lana (formerly Rudy) Houston may authentically be transgendered, most assuredly embodying the role of Mama, she never really commands the stage, and seems occasionally lost as if on a mild sedative. In other words, the all-around casting may be authentic, but the acting is not. When any fighting begins, it can feel more like The Jerry Springer Show than a true classroom of scared, confused, outrageous, tough-as-nails kids.


And yet, the first 20 minutes of this warmly written, eager-to-please play were truly thrilling, and enough moments landed right that I suspect future performances may tighten. (At over 150 minutes, though, this evening felt sluggish and belabored; the first act alone is over 90 minutes.) I loved Shoniqua Shandai as Victoria, a hapless idealist with body-image issues who adores her ex-con husband Donnie (Tre Hall). As the up-in-your-face, exotic college girl, Jonelle, thick-legged Armand Fields (reprising his Chicago role) has a life force that can play to the back of the Shrine Auditorium. And while he’s in a conventional role, and sounds like he just stepped out of the Bronx, I’m nuts about Chicago actor Esteban Andres Cruz, whose wacky internal machinery makes him eminently watchable as the Latina virago, Ariela.


What I’m left with is the wholly original character of Mama, who remains shakily steadfast, a modern-day Sojourner Truth running her own underground railway to rescue life’s outcasts. I’m entertaining the thought of returning to see understudy co-Artistic Director Michael A. Shepperd as Mama so I can see the full spectrum of Gloria Allen, whose imperturbable righteousness—a combination of Church Lady, Mother Courage, Auntie Mame, and The Crying Game—clearly impacted many.


esteban-andres-cruz-and-lana-houston-in-celebration-theatres-charmphotos by Matthew Brian Denman

Celebration Theatre
Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave. in Hollywood
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on October 23, 2016
for tickets, call 323.957.1884 or visit Celebration

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