Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

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A Powerful Sweeney at Curtis Theatre

Mythology is not confined to the ancients.  Societies are constantly developing new folklore from bits and pieces of history, rumor, and belief with a dash of morality  peppered in.  Those stories become folklore, which gets reiterated through the arts. Stories, paintings, songs, and other art forms both perpetuate and transform the tales until they settle in on a narrative sweet spot, one that speaks to the heart of listeners while also teaching a moral truth.  The myth becomes just fictional enough to be palatable and just plausible enough to be enjoyable.


That’s what happened with the British legend of Sweeney Todd, the murderous 19th century barber who slit the throat of his victims, then sent them down into his landlady’s meat pie shop to be transformed into a delicious treat for the masses.  Various tales of cannibalism in Britain reached back at least to the 17th century.  Over time, they evolved and ultimately were worked into an 1847 Penny Dreadful novel, The String of Pearls: A Romance.


From there, Sweeney’s tale morphed into a popular melodrama, at least six film versions, numerous stage plays, and most famously into the Stephen Sondheim musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Perhaps because this version combines Sondheim’s dark and powerful score, perfect characterizations, a bit of humor, and a large dose of taboo, it has become the standard iteration of this piece of English folklore.  Last night, a compelling staging of this classic thriller opened at the Curtis Theatre in Brea, and it remains just as powerful as the first time anyone ever watched Sweeney’s razor float across its first throat.

Directed by Stephen John, this production is filled with talent.  Rudy Martinez employs a rich, deep baritone expertly as the “demonic” barber.  Beyond his voice, though, Martinez avoids the slightly wild-eyed characterization of this serial murderer that is so common.  Martinez’s Sweeney is precise, focused, and grounded in an inner strength that makes his character all that more chilling.  In the pivotal role of Mrs. Lovett, Laura Gregory also brings a more robust and self-assured demeanor mixed in with perfectly-delivered dry humor.  This is a bawdy and vocally solid Mrs. Lovett that breaks the mold of the cooky, grandmotherly character that developed early in the musical’s history.


Phil Nieto is appropriately disturbing and intimidating as the evil Judge Turpin, particularly in self-flagellating solo, “Johanna.”   This sequence is often seen as too dark even for this show, and its impact commonly blunted by placing the judge in darker light or facing him away from the audience.  Not this time.  Nieto’s large, powerful body faces directly at us, and we get a disturbing look into the mind and heart of our amoral villain as he prays for deliverance.  In contrast, Ryan Coon is positively jovial as Turpin’s sidekick, Beadle Bamford.  Coon also contributes a gorgeous tenor to multiple harmonies throughout the show.  In another antagonistic role, David A. Blair is also effective as Sweeney’s street-hustling competition, Adolfo Pirelli, while also bringing a gorgeous voice to the ongoing ballad that drives the show.


Within the murder and darkness of Sweeney, you need to have a ray of light.  Aaron Stephens and Carolyn Lupin provide this as the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna.  Both exude innocence and hope for the future, which becomes more and more necessary as the play progresses.  In particular, Lupin’s crystal soprano sings of youth and desire for freedom.


Their youthful hope, however, is effectively counteracted by Katrina Murphy’s mysterious Beggar Woman.  Murphy comes off as the loss of that youthful innocence, with a similar soprano voice and her long, dirty blonde hair.  Her Beggar Woman seems more than physically desperate; she is mentally unsound, making the conclusion of her sad story even more tragic.  In a similar story arc of youth destroyed, Ricky Abilez is strong in the role of the young Tobias Ragg.  In this version, we know his fate from the beginning, and Abiliez smoothly helps us see Toby’s transition.


Stephen John gambled a bit with his minimalist set design.  The action takes place mostly on the lower level, with the barber shop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop occupying the same space on stage, marked by the placement of set pieces, which is quite unusual.  The design works in the sense that it focuses the audience on the performances rather than special effects or intricate props, yet it tends to diminish some of the show’s central points.


An important piece of the action revolves around Sweeney’s victims dropping from his chair directly into the bake house below, and so the design somewhat cuts off this layer.  Both the barber chair and the bake house oven are in many ways vital characters in their own rights, but we are unable to feel their full effect without the extra layer.


And yet, with such strong performances, that is only nit-picking details.  This cast delivers the Victorian legend of Sweeney Todd with faith and strength.  There is a precision in their demeanor and purity to their vocals that easily pours through the entire evening and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats.  This October is a wonderful time to return to the foggy streets of London, sit back in your favorite barber’s chair, and Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd.



Production Details:

What: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

When: October 8-23. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 pm; Sundays 3:00 pm.

Where:  Curtis Theater

1 Civic Center Dr.

Brea, CA 92821

Tickets: Can be purchased Here.







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Footloose: The Musical Cuts Loose at Mysterium

If you’re of a certain generation, they you are very familiar with the 1984  movie Footloose.   Just the mention of the title immediately brings the film’s high-powered and iconic title song directly into your head (you gotta cut loose).  Images of Kevin Bacon punchdancing and tumbling his way through a flour mill soar into your mind.  It’s classic 80’s music video fun, so much so that in 1998, the film was adapted into a rockin’ stage musical.

I had seen the stage version once before, but my reaction was mixed.  The dancing was fantastic, and of course the music from the movie brought back wonderful memories (Let’s hear it for the boy!), but most of the supplemental music kind of slid through one ear and out the other.

But that was in a huge auditorium.  I was very lucky to get to see it again, this time in Mysterium Theater’s smaller, more intimate space.  Footloose is very different when the anger, pain, and conflict that drives every character is plainly visible from the first note to the last.  The musical format works especially well with this show because, as characters sing we get a window into their deepest thoughts, which helps us gain a better understanding of the complex motivations that drive their behavior.  It’s easy to look at Rev. Moore as the “bad guy,” but the more we hear him sing about his theological and parental conflicts, the more we understand that he is just another misguided soul just trying to do what he believes is right.

Footloose the musical at Mysterium Theater

In case you are unfamiliar with Footloose (hard to imagine, but I’m sure it happens), it is the story of city kid Ren McCormack who moves to the small town of Bomont to find that dancing and rock music are strictly prohibited by city ordinance.  At the top of the town’s power structure sits Rev. Shaw Moore, who controls the city council with faith-inspired iron fist.  Ren’s presence shakes up the town, and soon the local teens start a movement to hold a prom within the city limits, all while Ren falls in love with the preacher’s daughter.  It’s Romeo and Juliet meets Rebel Without a Cause, set to pop rock.

It’s simplistic to boil Footloose down to a battle stupid country bumpkins puritanically fighting against change and anything that smacks of fun vs. good-looking, hormonal teenagers who need a trickster form the outside to come in and change the system.  There’s more.  It’s about repression and renewal.  While we want to see the Reverend’s Christianity as the villain there’s more to it than that.  His religion is not the problem; his own self-imposed, unrealistic expectations that he must control everyone in order to usher them into heaven are truly the issue.

It’s really about small-mindedness, the anxiety of change, and the need for all of us to search our beliefs honestly and make those painful decisions to recognize that sometimes, we are wrong.  One look at the political world we live in today displays those themes in spades.

Mysterium’s production is full of some excellent talent.  In the lead role of Ren, Edgar Torrens tears up the stage with his energy and honesty.  He meets his match, though, with Meredith Culp’s glittering portrayal of Ren’s love interest, Ariel (the preacher’s daughter).  Culp is a magnetic performer who easily accomplishes Ariel’s multiple levels of conflict and expressions of joy while layering on wonderful singing voice.  The stage lights up when she walks on.

Ray Buffer is the central pin in this production in two ways.  As the overly paternal Rev. Moore, Buffer delivers with his booming voice and his quiet, vulnerable strength.  Buffer is also the show’s director, and in this capacity he has done a wonderful job of staging a big musical in to a small space.

Another strong performance is turned in by Andreas Pantazis as Ren’s friend Willard.  At first, Pantazis seems to be portraying just another country hick, but his performance becomes a metaphor for the town’s growth as Willard slowly opens up and blossoms as repression is removed and he is allowed to flower into his full self.  This Willard truly displays his transformation in Pantazis’ carefree and animated rendition of “Mama Says.”

Also impressive are Ariel’s three girlfriends, Rusty (Emily Curington), Wendy Jo (Danielle Goupille), and Urleen (Ariel Infante).  The three act as a sort of Greek chorus, narrating through song and participating in the action.  Their presence is particularly keenly felt in the number “Somebody’s Eyes,” in which they explore the frustration of small town life, where each action you take is catalogued and gossip powers the cogs of existence.  It’s hard to “cut loose” when everything mistake you make is held against you.

Mysterium’s production is both high energy fun, but it also explores some of the deeper layers at work within the town of Bomont.  It sympathetically emphasizes the very real concerns of responsible parenting while also celebrating youth and joy.  And if you come from the 80’s, it’s really hard not to sing along.


WHAT: Footloose, The Musical

WHERE: Mysterium Theater

311 Euclid St.

La Habra, CA 90631

WHEN: Thursdays – Sundays through May 29

8:00 pm;  Saturday and Sunday matinees at 4:00 pm

COST: $15-$30 in advance, $30 at the door

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Dracula explores the darkness at Mysterium

It’s October again – that mysterious month where darkness begins to truly overtake the light and people come into touch with monsters, goblins, and demons. It’s that time when we talk about those nebulous veils that separate us from the mysterious and supernatural growing thin, and we seek out opportunities to explore our fears.

But what if our fears are right here among us? What if those things we fear can slither unnoticed into our very homes and families and feed of ourselves and our loved ones? These are the themes explored in Mysterium Theater’s adaptation of the classic vampire tale, Dracula.

Dracula at Mysterium

In the title role is Jason M. Cook, who returns to acting after a long break from the stage. With his platinum blonde hair, long flowing cloaks, and Transylvanian accent, Cook’s Dracula stands out among his English neighbors. But he excels at a delicious charm that believably gets him accepted into this foreign environment. Isn’t that the point? Sometimes evil can infiltrate unnoticed, and we allow its charms to suck our lives away. Cook’s vampire takes advantage of evil’s charm, which make his transitions into the true Dracula personality even more dramatic.

His nemesis, supernatural expert Abraham Van Helsing, is played with strength and an almost bullish determination by Daniel Tennant. The character is known for his single-minded obsession with destroying Dracula, and Tennant’s brute force in the role plays directly into that characterization. He is an imposing figure who no self-respecting vampire would want as an enemy.

A large part of the drama is propelled by the love story. When Jonathan’s Harker’s lover Mina is transfixed under the life-destroying spell of the evil Count, the tension created between their love and her illness is a driving force of the plot. Joshua Aguilar and Christina Desiere strike this friction well, especially during the show’s tenser moments. The love chemistry between the characters isn’t as strong as it could be, but then that fits the story. After all, Mina is ill, controlled by Dracula, and slowly fading into a vampire herself.

Mark Rosier stands out in that strange but pivotal role of Renfield. Short of stature, but full of power Rosier delivers equal doses of profound and crazy. Playing off him are the admirable performances of Robin Walton, KC Marie Pandell, and Gerard Power.

Mysterium has a new location, the La Habra Depot Playhouse, and the move fit perfectly into this production. The house is long and narrow, and combined with lighting effects, creates the perfect gothic atmosphere for this supernatural murder mystery. Director Holly Baker-Kreiswirth and her actors take full advantage of the larger theater, which is downright cavernous compared to Mysterium’s Orange location. In a gothic mystery, the set design becomes an important character, and set designer Eugene McDonald brings his character to life.

Evil can be among us. It doesn’t always stand out, and it can show a face of sweetness. Despite the standard vampire mythology that they are repelled by crosses and all things holy, evil is much more complicated than the outward trappings of religion. Mysterium’s production delves into the realm of exploring the evil among us, rooting it out, and driving a stake through its heart, yet at one point Dracula stresses the truth that if humanity wants to find the source of evil, it needs only to look in the mirror. The reflection you see will not be his.

WHAT: Dracula

WHERE: Mysterium Theater
                La Habra Depot Playhouse
                311 S. Euclid
                La Habra, CA

 WHEN:   Thursdays – Sundays October 17 – November 2

 CONTACT: (562) 697-3311

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Rent at Mysterium: the magic of youth

Rent is a musical about transitions in life and relationships.  The “in-between times” are always the most magical.  You can see it in a day: there is a special magic to sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight, and of course we always feel a magic in the change of seasons.  These are times of transition, where anything is possible and the next phase is full of excitement and potential.

Rent, which just opened at Mysterium Theater in Santa Ana, CA,  is about the magic of a different transitional time: the transition from the young, carefree life of your early 20’s to the responsibilities and concerns of “mainstream” adult life.  Each character navigates the delicate gap between young fun and adult responsibility in their own way, and each one has to deal with the consequences of their choices.

For some, such as Angel and Roger, the choice to avoid responsibility leads to disease, addiction, and death.  For others, such as Benny, the choice to accept it leads to alienation from the friends they love.  The entire first act takes place on Christmas Eve, an important magical time in our culture, and follows the clashing of these two energies through the holidays of the next year until the characters are able to look back on their choices on the following December 24.  The characters of Rent grow and change through their clashes with life’s seasonal and personal transitions: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, rehab, Halloween, love, illness, and death.  It is a magical year that transforms each character.

Mysterium has assembled a talented young cast that seems wise beyond its years as it tackles this very heavy rock musical.  Leading the cast are Ian James as small-time documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen and Luis Ochoa as his roommate, the brooding, HIV-infected Roger Davis.  James and Ochoa effectively carry much of the show, as they act as the central hub of the show’s intertwining storylines.  James plays Mark with a clear optimism that counterpoints poignantly with Ochoa’s desperate pessimism and desire to drive away any possible source of pain.

Rent: Mark Cohen sings La Vie Boheme

Ian James as indie filmmaker Mark Cohen sings the praises of “La Vie Boheme” to doubtful “yuppy scum” Benny (Vincent Anicento).
Photo credit: Robert Ladd

When Andrea Somera as Roger’s “born to be bad” neighbor Mimi throws a wrench into Roger’s plans to brood his life away, forcing him to see love and actually face pain, she brings out more and more emotion in Ochoa’s characterization of Roger.

The other catalyst to the show, the antagonist if there is one, is Vincent Anicento as Roger and Mark’s landlord/ex-friend Benny.  Anicento strongly portrays Benny’s noveau-riche cynicism, which drives the plot along.

In the midst of this clash comes the redemption love story of computer genius/anarchist Collins (Miguel Cardenas) and Bohemian drag queen Angel (Benjamin Alicea).  Alicea’s constant sweetness challenges the cynicism of Cardenas’ Collins, and we can see the genuine love between the two of them grow as their relationship gets stronger and stronger, constantly proving the transformative power of love in the face of doubters like Roger.

The final clash in the story is between idealism and realism, and it is represented by Mark’s ex Maureen (Jillian Lawson) and her new girlfriend, Joanne (Natasha Reese), a lawyer from a wealthy family.  Put-together and stern, Reese’s exasperation at Lawson’s free-spirit Maureen touches on some very believable conflicts any two people may have in a relationship.  Where Lawson is radiant and takes command of her stage time, Reese organizes and helps others perform, and both of those are exactly consistent with their characters.

Rent: Maureen's perfromance

Jillian Lawson as street perfomer Maureen Johnson commands the stage as she complains about gentrification, cyber-land, and cows that drink Diet Coke.
Photo credit: Robert Ladd

The cast navigates their way through emotional conflicts and terrifying challenges, often with humor, sometimes with terrible sadness.  Their characters transform through one magical year of transition, beginning and ending their journey on Christmas Eve, and each actor grows develops their character along their appropriate path.  Backing them up along the way is a talented chorus who each plays multiple roles as they provide the background for the journey of each main character.

Director Rovin Jay and choreographer Sonya Randall take full advantage of the small stage, but they are helped immensely in that endeavor by Eugene McDonald’s multi-level set.  The set for Rent is Spartan, as it takes place either in a bare New York apartment loft or in a homeless tent city on the streets of New York City.  But McDonald’s set incorporates stairs, a catwalk, and a set of moveable tables to create more variety within the bare stage.  Jay and Randall navigate their actors up, down, around, and across all of these simple set pieces to effectively create the illusion of a larger stage.

Sometimes the sound levels were off, and that can damage the storytelling.  Rent is a grungy rock musical, so it’s completely appropriate for the music to be loud.  But the story arc of the show is mostly told through its lyrics.  Only a little exposition is spoken, almost all of the story’s important points are told through song, so the actors’ voices need to amplified enough to be clearly heard over the rocking musical accompaniment.  This didn’t happen often enough, unfortunately, so some of the plot got lost.  This is a completely fixable problem, however.

Rent challenges us with life’s pain, from AIDS to drug addiction to suicide.  It also encourages us with life’s beauty: love, art, and friendship.  It tells us to find that magical place where they pain and the beauty meet so that we can transform our lives through all of our many Seasons of Love.


Rent at Mysterium Theater

19211 Dodge Ave

Santa Ana, CA 92705

(714) 505-3454

Performances February 21 – March 15

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays: 8:01 p.m.

Sundays: 2:01 and 5:01 p.m.


A tasty Sweeney at Mysterium

Mysterium Theater in Santa Ana has a history of tackling challenging productions.  A small theater, they always seem capable of taking advantage of every inch of space, turning their size into an advantage.  Effectively bringing big, technical shows with large casts into such an intimate space is a challenge, but when it’s done, it amplifies every single note and pushes the themes and emotions of the piece directly into your face.  It’s a challenge, but Mysterium always seems to succeed.

When you’re staging musicals, you can’t get much more challenging that Stephen Sondheim.  Known for his labyrinthine lyrics, Sondheim is popular for his creativity with both actors and audiences.  No one writes better songs that both showcase the actors’ talents and advance the story.  Actors want to perform Sondheim; patrons want to see Sondheim.  But Sondheim is really hard to sing.  For an example, check out his classic “Not Getting Married Today,” from his show Company.

While any Sondhiem show is tough to stage, when you combine both musical skill and stagecraft difficulty, his single most challenging show is probably Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Big, in-your-face, and almost entirely musical, Sweeney barely fits in a small theater, but there’s just something incredible about being right there with the murderous barber, lunatics, and scumbags of London.  Mysterium pulls it off just right.

Sweeney Todd is everyone’s favorite musical about mass murder and cannibalism, but it really isn’t about that.  The driving force of Sweeney Todd is inequality and abuse of power.  The show paints the picture of a desperate city, run by corrupt and greasy officials who constantly grind their boots into the backs of the poor and needy, and its real story is one of sticking it to the establishment.  It seeks to make everyone uncomfortable.  You root for a murderer and hate law enforcement.  Like all out-of-the-mainstream ideas, Sweeney turns society on its head and confronts you with your own world seen from a new angle.

While Mysterium’s production doesn’t overtly tackle these themes, the way it pushes the gritty slums of 19th century London into your laps in this small space is enough to force you to feel them.  Beggars are just as likely to be in the aisles as on the stage.  The show is full of strong voices who relish their little stage and bring the audience to their feet in applause.

Foremost among them is the central couple, William Crisp as the revenge-obsessed barber Sweeney and Dyan Hobday as the Sweeney-obsessed meat pie baker, Mrs. Lovett.  Crisp is indeed “crisp” as Sweeney. Dressed in a costume reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, his strong voice, fueled by simmering anger, carries the show through every hill and valley.  From the soft and pensive early scenes of “No Place Like London” to the crazed fury of “Epiphany,” Crisp dominates the stage with the emotion he desires.  When he finally cracks into the crushing sadness of the final scene, even that regret comes through realistically and tragically.

Hobday is an absolutely stellar Mrs. Lovett.  The role is iconically pinned to Angela Lansbury, and many actresses tend to attempt to re-create the role in her image.  Hobday avoids that temptation at all costs.  She makes Mrs. Lovett completely her own.  This is clear from her high energy opening “Worst Pies in London,” and remains all the way through.  Her gorgeous voice nails every nuance of every song, and it is backed up by a divine acting performance that succeeds on all levels.  Her performance would be perfectly at home on a professional stage.

Naathan Phan is a fixture at Mysterium, and it’s easy to see why.  His unassuming frame hides some wonderful acting and vocal talent, which is a great combination in his role of Tobias.  Phan is a born showman, so he shines in his of hawking both snake oil and meat pies, scenes that feature lyrics that many seasoned actors would shy away from.  His strong voice and more vulnerable nature are skilfully conveyed later in the tender “Not While I’m Around.”  Stan Morrow revels in the garish huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Tobias’ first employer.

As the lovers who throw a wrench into Sweeney’s plans, Adam Bradley Clinton brings a pure voice and a naïve tone to the sailor boy Anthony, which matches nicely with his intended’s full blown innocence.  Rachel Charest-Bertram’s Johanna brings truth to the lonely girl’s sweetness, and it is powered by her amazing soprano voice.

The nefarious partnership of Beadle and Judge mostly succeeds.  Luis Enrique Cejas is a bit young for the Beadle, and that can disturb the show’s plot, for the Beadle is supposed to have been at his post for at least 15 years.  Still, Cejas is very effective as the greasy, corrupt officer.  The same is true of Tom Royer’s evil Judge Turpin, although it would be nice to see a greater contrast between the Judge’s outward piety and inward nastiness.  This duality is a central theme to the show, embodied by its antagonist, and a little stronger dose of it would have been helpful.

The mysterious Beggar Woman is a tough character.  Ever-present, she seems to act as Sweeney’s conscience.  No one, including the audience, really knows why she’s there until the end, so it can be easy to misunderstand much of her action.  Kaitlyn Tice walks this line admirably, seeming to enjoy the mystery she is creating, especially when she brings her cries for “alms” into the audience.

Sweeney Todd has one of the most important ensembles of any musical.  The ensemble is its own character, portraying the citizens of London, contributing to the tone, and performing vital storytelling duties.  The ensemble fills the role of the classic Greek Chorus, filling in gaps in the story and supplementing the hero’s obsession with the voice of mad, gritty reason.  This chorus fits the challenge.

Owner/director Marla Ladd rises to the challenge of fitting this large, intense musical onto her small stage.  She uses every nook and cranny of Eugene McDonald’s creative set.  Sweeney requires at least two levels of set design, and McDonald is able to deliver four, making some of the storytelling sequences clearer and the ensemble sections easier.

Sweeney Todd was a classic long before Johnny Depp brought it to the screen.  It has stood the test of time because audiences get beyond the blood and guts and find some form of visceral truth to its portrayal of inequality of wealth and torturous abuse of power.  After the recent Kelly Thomas verdict, it’s clear that these themes have not gone away.  Even in a different country and a different time, the “rosy skin of righteousness” still seems to have a few blemishes.


  • Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  • Mysterium Theater
  • 19211 Dodge Avenue
  • Santa Ana, CA
  • (714) 505-3454

Remaining Dates:

  • January 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25; February 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 at 8:01 p.m.
  • January 12, 19, 26; February 2 at 7:01 p.m.
  • January 18, 19, 21, 26; February 1, 2, 8 at 4:01 p.m.