“Could it be? Yes it could. Something’s coming, something good”¦“
The Troubadour Theater Company’s A Christmas Westside Story opened Friday at the Falcon Theatre, and it is simply spectacular. It combines the plot and setting of the classic 1983 film A Christmas Story with music and dance inspired by one of Broadway’s favorite musicals, West Side Story. Supporters, subscribers, critics, friends and family filled the tiny 130-seat jewel of a theater, and you sensed the warmth generated by their happy anticipation of yet another “Troubie” event.
Falcon founder and board president Garry Marshall, who is a hands-on member of the “Falcon family”, could not attend because he was in New York for the opening of his latest film, New Year’s Eve, a romantic comedy with mega-stars but also featuring a few Troubie company members. His daughter and co-producer, Kathleen Marshall LaGambina, was in the lobby after the show beaming with pride –Â “My father is always here but has been doing press in New York for two days. He actually came to see it Tuesday night and will be home Sunday. I saw the final dress rehearsal and now the opening. It’s different every single time and always incredible.”
Opening night parties at the Falcon feel as if you’ve walked into someone’s private home for a delicious buffet supper. Along with shrimp, cheese, crackers and mini-dessert selections, the parties are famous for their meatballs — no, not Italian-style meatballs. These are hot, slightly sweet, hickory-smoked Falcon meatballs. It’s as if your relative with a secret recipe for her famous sauce and meatballs cooked up a batch for everyone to enjoy and nosh after the show. Of course, like any good host, the Falcon serves a choice of champagne, pinot noir or merlot to wash it all down.
Marshall LaGambina smiled. “It’s family. We’ve always been a family business and try to bring in people who want to be a part of our family. The Troubies have been here about 11 years and they are certainly family members. In fact, we have a front row named the Troubadour row. If you sit up there, you know you will probably be participating in the show. Basically we try really hard to make it a wonderful fun night with a lot of laughs and parking.” Ah, the “P” word does resonate with anyone who has paid for tickets, then paid again for the privilege to leave the car somewhere within shouting distance of the theater. Falcon patrons park for free — subscribers in the front lot and everyone else around the corner in a smaller lot or on streets very close-by.
“With a click, with a shock, phone’ll jingle, door’ll knock”¦“
Troubie newbie Robert Petrarca happily reported on the recent experience of jumping into his first show with a well-established troupe that was the toast of the recent Ovation Awards. “It isn’t difficult when people are as brilliant and welcoming as these guys. The environment is amazing, and they are so supportive of new actors. I was a bit nervous, because a lot of them have nine or ten shows under their belt ““ the musical director has done 28 shows. But they made me feel relaxed and a part of it all.”
Petrarca worked with director Matt Walker six years ago on Happy Days the Musical (book by Garry Marshall), so he wasn’t asked to audition. “We hadn’t talked much since that time. Matt happened to see the last show I did here (Laurel and Hardy — Petrarca was the pianist) and said they were looking for another dancer for their holiday Troubie production, and did I want to do it.” Petrarca’s eyes widened in recollection. “Uh, I said of course. I had seen many Troubie performances, and I knew if I was given the opportunity to be a part of this group I needed to jump on it.”
The most exciting part about the evening for Petrarca? “I guess it’s the opening night vibe. There are a lot of supportive people in this audience. The energy that a Troubie audience brings is unlike any other. People want to be here. I know, because I’ve been one of them. You always remember your last experience, and you’re so excited to see something new that will make you feel the way you did at the last one.”
“The Puerto Ricans grumble: Fair fight. But if they start a rumble …“
Ameenah Kaplan, fight choreographer for this production and two-time Ovation nominee in this year’s awards, has worked with the Troubies many times. Referring to the dance in A Christmas Westside Story, Kaplan called it “wonderful. Molly Alvarez (2011 Ovation nominee for the Troubies’ The First Jo-el) is a great choreographer and did a fantastic job on tonight’s show. My training is in martial arts, kung fu and a spattering of other things, so whether I’m choreographing dance or fight staging I like to bring that element in plus rhythm. We’ve done so much before that honestly it all came together in about three hours. The Troubies are not from a hard-core dance background, and I think that’s part of the charm of the company. Choreographers are pulling out pretty complicated dance moves from non-dancers, and they all do really well.”
“We’re gonna rock it tonight. We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball…“
Sharon McGunigle, a three-time Ovation nominee for Troubie costumes, didn’t design this show’s outfits, but she disclosed her favorite costume piece in it. “I saw the preview, and she (costume designer Naomi Yoshida) has added many things since then. One was the striped shirt she put on the Toadie character (Christine Lakin). It was a perfect West Side Story beatnik thing. I thought the costumes were spot-on great. It made me so happy to see what Naomi had done as far as the nod to both the movie and the musical. She evoked that world the story takes place in (fictional Hohman, Indiana), yet always with a nod to the West Side (New York) “story”. Each time I saw another little reference that would crack me up.”
“Well they began it. Well, they began it…“
“I met Matt (Walker) when we were 15 and 16 at Santa Monica High School.” Troubie veteran Lisa Valenzuela (teacher Ms. Shields), said Walker is older but, “I’m not going to tell you our age.” For the record, I didn’t ask. No fool, I. “There was an open call for Grease, and I was the nerd in the choir. Matty was Danny Zuko and breaking hearts in our high school. He’s always been a major talent. I’ve always been a singer. This whole acting thing came about when I was doing slide whistle and sound effects for him and singing back-up for the musicals. One day he said, why don’t you jump on stage? And I screamed, what do you mean?” She grins. “But I did it.”
Valenzuela revealed how the show changes every night. “We have a script, but it’s just a frame. We’re all about current events, so whatever happens that day we just put it in the show.” The morning the show opened, a shooting at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood caused traffic detours into the evening hours and delays in arrivals for the performance. After the show began, two exceptionally late audience members delighted the cast. “When we don’t have one, we’re disappointed. Oh, we’re sad. We hope someone’s late, because then we “˜get them’. But it’s never a set-up.” Suffice it to say the entire cast ended the “˜get’ with a hilarious song. I won’t mention the title and spoil it, but I do hope you get a chance to experience their fourth wall break and “latecomer number”.
Originally an improvisational reaction, Valenzuela explained, “Matt came up with that one night, and it went over so well, we all said okay, now that’s our latecomer song. We have something for everything. If you could spend a week with us at rehearsal, you’d see it’s like going to clown college and funny on every level.
“Since the Ovation Awards, Matty is in great demand. People all over are like, “˜Hello, can we play’?” When asked to explain their enormous fan base, Valenzuela paused for a moment. “All of us are really down to earth. We know there’s a chance there will be a mistake here and there, but we thrive on our mistakes. I think the audience relates to that — to making a mistake. They relate to the humanity of the actors and the warmth on stage between everyone in the company.”
While on the subject of improvised material, I should mention that at one point (during a first act scene), an audience member seated in the third row quietly opened his program. Walker — who plays the Christmas Story boy Ralphie — didn’t miss a beat, made a joke about it,Â and then added, “Oops. Just noticed he has a pencil and a big white press kit.” Big laugh, as Walker apologized and told the critic it was okay to read”¦and write.
I grabbed Walker and congratulated him on yet another superb production. What inspires this incredibly creative man? “Well, in this instance it was the blending of the two source materials. When we came up with the title, I thought I just can’t wait to do that. I think we bit off a bit more than we realized because the score is so complicated and the movement is complicated.” Speaking of the score, kudos to the gifted four-piece band led by Eric Heinly, who makes it sound like an entire orchestra.
Walker explained the reason the Troubie material is unpublished. “A lot of it has to do with licensing the music. Because we feel copyright-protected through the Fair Use Act, we’re able to appropriate the material as long as it’s a parody or satire. That may not translate if different groups do it. If you take the show at face value without the undercurrent of satire, you can get into a gray area. But, I think eventually we’ll cross those bridges and find artists willing to license their material so we can produce shows like Mamma Mia! and the Billy Joel musical (Movin’ Out), because that seems to be the landscape now and we’ve been doing it for 15 years.”
Walker added, “the Falcon has been so generous. Garry and Kathleen make us feel really welcome and at home. The staff is always top-notch and really cares about the product. We won the best season [Ovation] award two out of the last three years and I tell everyone — for instance Joe, who runs the front house and box office, “˜Congratulations,’ and they ask for what? And, I say for the best season award. They say, “˜Oh, I don’t really do anything’. But that’s not true. I tell them it takes a village. And, that’s what’s great about being with the Falcon.”
CHAT CITE: “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and open air wait for us somewhere.” –Stephen Sondheim/West Side Story
***All photos by Chelsea Sutton