(Costa Mesa, CA) May, 2014 – What makes South Coast Repertory stand out from many other regional theaters in Southern California is even though its Golden Anniversary has ended, the company shows no signs of slowing down during their summers. Beginning this past November, SCR has been producing two programs concurrently with the regular season. The Studio SCR Series has been featuring works produced by other theater companies. Completing this series will be Absolutely Filthy by the Sacred Fools Theater and The Bargain & the Butterfly by the Ghost Road Company.
The second program is SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences and serving as the finale is John Glore’s adaptation of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s book, The Stinky Cheese Man. Although this production was featured in 2005, SCR welcomes back this humorous story of how Jack from "Jack and the Beanstalk" presents a slightly skewed interpretation of the classic fairy tales. And courtesy of Glore’s writing, Jessica Kubzansky’s direction and the talented actors, the show is packed with witty fun. SCR's theatrical program finale is a pure treat for audiences of all ages.
The basic premise of both Scieszka’a and Smith’s book and Glore’s play is very simple: Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk (Matt McGrath) serves as the hapless narrator for a montage of some “fairly stupid tales,” where multiple roles are played by only 6 actors (Larry Bates, Brad Culver, Tracey A. Leigh, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Amanda Pajer, and Erika Schindele) Translation: Present different interpretations of the classic fairy tales such as “Chicken Little,” “The Princess and the Pea,” The Frog Prince,” and other well known children’s favorites, which are now called “Chicken Licken,” The Princess and the Bowling Ball,” “The Other Frog Prince,” and other “adapted titles.” Of course, unexpected situations occur: chickens keep popping up on stage before their cues, the Surgeon General is trying to shut the theatre down, the Giant from the Jack and the Beanstalk story wants to tell his own story…and who is that legal disclaimer guy at the end of the play? And especially, what is the problem with the Cow Patty Boy popping out and screaming “Cow Patty!!” to any unsuspecting audience member? But eventually, as with all fairy tales, The Stinky Cheese Man ends happily ever after.
Playwright and SCR Associate Artistic Director Glore has demonstrated in the past his mastery of dialogue and character with his original works, and this can be said for adapting Cheese Man for the stage. Adapting an adult work for the stage is hard enough, but adapting a children’s work is even more complicated because of the ability to walk that delicate line regarding how to entertain both kids AND adults. Glore has accomplished this before and he has most certainly succeeded again with this year’s production. It was very much like watching “Fractured Fairy Tales” that were featured on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, only it was Glore’s creative talent, Kubzansky’s beautifully paced direction, the costume and set design (Ann Closs-Farley and Susan Gratch) and especially the hilarious musical numbers that bring both the humor and wonder to life for the young audiences, especially when two little girls were brought on stage during the “Stinky Cheese Man” story at the end of the play, both of which had a fantastic time.
The cast appealed to the audience uniformly, with no flaws whatsoever. McGrath’s Jack is a likable eager beaver who is trying to do his best to keep the production going, even when things go awry, as though he were in a production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. Pajer and Chindele’s expert comic timing is matched by their beautiful vocal musical ranges and Mongiardo-Cooper’s immense presence---especially when playing Foxy Loxy---is matched by his charm. However, the standouts really belong to Culver, Bates and especially Leigh. Culver wonderfully portrays the Surgeon General, King, the Frog, the Legal Guy, and many other roles that utilizes his comic physical flexibility and his booming, eloquent, baritone voice that projects all the way to the back of the theater without it being forced; it would be interesting to see him in a Shakespearean performance. With a scraggly black beard and deep intense eyes, Culver looked very much like a much younger, thinner, yet less scary version of 1970s character actor Sid Haig. Bates is ALL MANIC ENERGY as the Cow Patty Boy, the Prince, and the Stinky Cheese Man; it is a nice contrast to see him in a joyful comic performance after his previous SCR dramatic roles in Jitney and Death of a Salesman. And Leigh is a true talent to behold where she literally disappears into every character that she inhabits, not only in terms of her posture and characterizations as the Queen, Stepmother, Old Lady and especially the Red Hen, but also the variety of different dialects she utilizes. She had the dramatic presence in Death of a Salesman and she demonstrates a unique chameleon-like comic timing with Cheese Man and it is no doubt her multifaceted abilities will be seen again in future SCR shows, just like in her previous four appearances. And with this combination of artistic talent, The Stinky Cheese Man will continue to please audiences till the very end of SCR Golden Anniversary season.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
The Stinky Cheese Man opened May 23-June 8, 2014
South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Debora Robinson