Was it premature for the Grove Theatre Company to open "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in mid-November? Not really. This musical by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, adapted from the poem by Dylan Thomas, isn't particularly a Christmas story, nor a children's show.
It could be about any cold-weather holiday when friends and relatives gather for a long, leisurely celebration centered around a big dinner. Eliminate the gift-giving and the Welsh references and it could be a recollection of Thanksgivings past.
It might not please those who want to put Christ back into Christmas. No one mentions Bethlehem, and no moral lessons are taught. The score uses traditional hymns, but most of the lyrics are irreverent reflections on secular topics. The only discussion of the supernatural occurs when everyone tells ghost stories before going to bed.
MTV-reared children may find it a little slow. Thomas acknowledged that his youthful Christmases were hard to tell apart, that this one was no more or less memorable than most. Yet he endowed this one with rich and wry poetry, and the results are charming.
Daniel Bryan Cartmell's staging shimmers. Gil Morales designed a winter streetscape that makes us appreciate the islands of warmth, which were illuminated by Bob Cady. Clarice Bessey's costumes demonstrate that the Welsh can wear plaids as well as the Scots.
The cast is in touch with the nuances. As the likable young Dylan, Danny Oberbeck reminded me of a budding Michael Siberry (the Ahmanson's Nicholas Nickleby)--especially when everyone sang "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" as they did in "Nickleby."
Performances are at 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, Wednesdays through Saturdays (ending Dec. 20) at 8 p.m., Sundays (ending Dec. 7) at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Dec. 13 and 14 at 3 p.m.; (714) 636-7213.
'ALWAYS ON SUNDAY'
The zanies who present "Always on Sunday" are the Groundlings' farm team. Yet on Sunday, I couldn't tell the difference between the quality of their work and the usual Groundlings standard that's upheld on Fridays and Saturdays.
Clearly some of these people are ready to graduate to the varsity squad--or even to "Saturday Night Live," which is the next logical step. Foremost is Julia Sweeney, who transforms herself from a human punching bag named Mea Culpa to a pubescent model to a prissy matron to a psychiatrist who's promoting "Freudland," a concept for a new theme park.
Almost as impressive is Jim Doughan, whose puffy, plastic face was born to be funny. Deborah Jerd, Ron Grigsby and David Maples also demonstrate formidable versatility. Among the cleverest pieces of comedy writing are Sherri Stoner's excerpt from a 6-year-old novelist's latest work and a small-town theater review by David Nichols.
Some of the 26 sketches don't work. But they're not hard to sit through, for director Cynthia Szigeti never lingers over the damage.
Performances are at 7307 Melrose Ave., Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; (213) 934-9700.
Imitation may be a form of flattery, but it should be something else, too. "Curley McDimple," at Burbank On Stage Theatre, resembles a generic Shirley Temple movie so much that the question arises: Why pay for "Curley" when you can see the real thing for free on television?
The differences between "Curley" and the Temple originals tend to favor the originals. No Equity Waiver production can match the movies' sets and orchestras. Eric Warren's "Curley" set gives it a good college try, but the "Curley" orchestra consists of a pianist and a drummer, on tape. And Bill Robinson is nowhere in sight.
Robert DahDah and Mary Boylan, who created "Curley" in 1967, must have intended it to serve as satire as well as homage. But in Jon Douglas Rake's staging, only one line poked enough fun at the prototype to evoke a big laugh from the opening-night audience. This show could use more cheek.
Another problem: Everyone has seen too many Shirley Temple impersonations. Julliette Miller gives us one more--and while it isn't bad, neither is it fresh. Sue Cound, as Curley's adoptive mother, gets the one big laugh, and generally chirps through her role with effortless grace--a quality that her partner, Lloyd Pedersen, lacks. Perhaps he needs glasses--he squints as he sings.
Performances are at 139 N. Golden Mall, Burbank, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. through Dec. 14, with 2 p.m. matinees on Nov. 29, 30 and Dec. 14; (818) 842-1072.
'LIFE AND DEPTH'
"This is not Reader's Digest," declares Joe Kogel in his solo piece, "Life and Depth," at the Powerhouse. He explains that his subject isn't how he fought cancer--which remains hazy--but rather what he learned from it. It taught him to get the most out of life.
Why this would be unsuitable for Reader's Digest isn't clear. "Life and Depth" is more of an inspirational lecture than a play. It includes a "Most Unforgettable Character"--Kogel's friend Jimmy --and a few anecdotes that would be perfect for "Life in These United States."
It also comes with pointless introductory "listening exercises," some mild stand-up comedy and--in the second act--an allegory about buffaloes. The connections between much of Kogel's material and his theme are nebulous at best; the Digest editors would tighten the piece and simplify the imagery.
Kogel's amiability keeps us listening, but it sometimes seems studied or out of place, considering the potentially harrowing nature of his story. Carolyn Myers directed.
Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays at 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica, through Dec. 21; (213) 392-6529.