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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Great Expectations

Also see Sharon's review of The Immigrant

Sterling Beaumon and Adam Simmons
There are some well-drawn supporting players in Great Expectations, the new musical based on the Dickens novel, at the Hudson Backstage. Take Dave Barrus as Joe, the honest and good-hearted blacksmith who is more of a friend than brother-in-law to protagonist Pip. A lower-class character content with his lot in life, Barrus infuses Joe with such cheerful goodwill, you pretty much expect him to grab a broom and burst into "Step in Time" at any moment.

There couldn't be a more different character than the creepy and vengeful Miss Havisham. Clothed in her tattered wedding dress and pale makeup, Havisham seems more of a ghost than a person. Such a unique and classic literary character is challenging to bring to life on stage, but Ellen Crawford is up to the challenge, imperiously commanding Pip to play with her daughter Estella, while simultaneously directing the girl to break his heart. It works because it is a fully committed performance (and it only fails in the second act, when Miss Havisham meets her fate in a scene that comes off more silly than scary, and might best be done offstage altogether).

There's also good work from Marc Cardiff as Jaggers, the lawyer who, working for an anonymous principal, brings Pip the promise of becoming a gentleman; and Hap Lawrence as Wemmick, his clerk. Jaggers and Wemmick come off so well because they have a delightful character-establishing song, "No Less No More," in which they not only convey their good news to Pip, but they also convey to us something of the nature of their working relationship.

Which brings us to Pip, and what is really missing from this musical. Pip is played by two actors, a child and an adult, as are a few other characters in the show. The musical begins with a flashback, as adult Pip walks through the streets and hears the voices of his past all around him. Adult Pip, played by Adam Simmons, then takes a seat on one side of the stage (Miss Havisham is on the other) and watches the proceedings until he is needed. Young Pip (Sterling Beaumon) then takes over, and we see other forces act on Pip. We meet Magwitch, the escaped convict (also Marc Cardiff, largely unrecognizable in his two roles) who forces Pip to help him. We meet Mrs. Joe, Pip's sister, who raises him but resents him (Sierra Rein in a comic performance that's very Mrs. Dursley). We meet Joe, who is kind to Pip, and Biddy, the sweet young girl who teaches Pip to read and obviously loves him. We meet Miss Havisham, who makes Pip fall for Estella. We meet Young Estella, who tells Pip he may kiss her, and then slaps him when he does.

What we don't meet is Pip—not in any real sense. We know what everyone else thinks of him and wants of him, but we don't know who he is or what he dreams of. Putting it another way, Great Expectations is missing Pip's "I want" song. While it is very clear that Miss Havisham—and, through her, Estella—messes with Pip's head by making him want something that is going to be denied him, what we really need is something to make us like Pip and root for him in the first place. As it is, the only early-introduced characters we genuinely like are Joe and Biddy—so when Pip turns his back on them with his newfound wealth, our sympathies are with them to the point where we might actually think Pip deserves what Havisham is doing to him.

We also have an odd sympathy for Estella, because she is aware of the monster Havisham has made her. She sings the misleadingly named "I Have a Heart" to Pip, in which she tells him that she is incapable of feeling, and instead deceives and entraps men. The music is dark and foreboding, and Shannon Warne plays it straight, as a warning. It could be played flirtatiously, but there is nothing deceptively seductive about Warne's read. And, while one might consider whether Estella truly is heartless if she cares enough about Pip to warn him off, one also wonders what kind of an idiot Pip is to continue to pursue Estella after she's flat-out told him that she's bad news and has done absolutely nothing to make him think otherwise.

Jules Aaron helms a production that has a "hey, kids, let's put on a show" feel to it, with actors taking on multiple roles whenever the production calls for it. The show does this with a sly wink to the point where, when Pip arrives in London and comments that a maid looks familiar to him, it gets a laugh because the actress playing the maid was recently playing Pip's sister. Costumes by Shon LeBlanc are only fully realized for some characters—with others, a change of accessory signifies the transformation from one character to another. Audible velcro attachments distract, as does the fact that Estella's lovely transparent dark blue sparkling skirt is hung over a bright white frame.

The songs are effective, if not memorable, and run the gamut from bouncy to beautiful. Singing voices vary, but largely improve as the evening moves on. This is partially due to the adults having better luck with some of the songs than the kids do, but also due to the fact that this is a production in need of a dialect coach. While both the "upper class" and "lower class" accents ring false, the lower class accents are far worse, with the over-emphasized dropped h's and "oi"s detracting from the words being said or lyrics being sung. Cleaning up the accents would help this production tremendously, although it still needs to give us a reason to want Pip to succeed.

Great Expectations runs through April 27, 2008 at the Hudson Backstage Theatre. For tickets and information, see

PipPocket Productions presents Great Expectations—a new musical based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Directed by Jules Aaron. Adapted by Margaret Hoorneman. Book by Brian VanDerWilt and Steve Lozier; Music by Richard Winzeler; Lyrics by Steve Lane. Dramaturgy by Calvin Remsberg; Light and Set Design by Adam Blumenthal; Production Stage Manager Brigid O'Brien; Properties by Gordon & Patty Briles; Costume Design by Shon LeBlanc; Marketing and Publicity by David Elzer/DEMAND PR. Casting by Michael Donovan.

Photo: Michael Lamont

- Sharon Perlmutter

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