Ellsie Awards 2008
By Glen Creason
While the economy may be nose-diving and mortgages floundering the cultural vitality of the southland continues to thrive in the case of the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Somehow the wise ones at the Center manage to put first-class talent on the stages and plenty of people in the seats season after delightful season. While I have become grizzled over my fifteen years on the Performing Arts beat the glittering hall on Center drive offers youthful tonics of inspiration and intellectual invigoration that pull all of us upward and onward. The Center is a place where the music-makers and the dreamers of dreams can work their magic for kids and seniors and the boomers in between. 2008 was another year of jagged ups and downs for me but at the theater the direction was decidedly positive.
Once again I must mention those who make it all appear to be easy but very sweet for we who visit often. There is a lot of hard work and loving attention to detail that makes it look easy while it most certainly is not. This would start with big wigs like Executive Director Craig Springer or Performance Manager Michael Wolf or Theater Manager Dianne Cheney who really insist that the theater be word-class excellent. It also includes a superb staff dealing with the likes of word-slingers like me lead by Kim Bui, the publicist who stepped in to fill the classy shoes of my friend Lori Levine-Yonan and did a superlative job. We hope to see Lori back soon but Kim has made her sabbatical more than bearable. Also, Laurie Kajiwara is the Marketing Supervisor who makes all of this seem to purr like one of the spoiled cats in my household.
There are staff favorites who never let down and always give their best with a smile including the ageless Faith Lazzari at the hospitality room, the wondrous India Holloway directing what seems like the solar system, the elegant house manager Alan Strickland, problem-solving Tony Erdelji and the cast of volunteer hospitality workers that make the Center warm and inviting always. In my case I have a bond with the box-office where I must appear with hat in hand each week. This year I can’t mention favorites although there are young lights that deserve gold stars. They are lead by Nate` Chavez and Cristopher Laroco and their names are Alyson Otrambo, Don Hayes, Andrea Shepard, Heather Sheltman, Carla Madrid, Janice Blanco, JoAnn Halli, Julianne Altenbernd, MarieCris Sanchez, Kris Liquigan, Megan Guilford, Lisa Simmons, Michael Toledo, Marcie Marte, Michelle Tucker, Scott Cobos, Yasmin Sanchez, Shameemah Motala, Sondra Wilson, Victoria Lugo and the ever-smiling Daniel Penland. These guys are aces!
Finally, the real unsung and unseen heroes of the Center are the technical crew who show after show make the theater look great and function like a Swiss watch. These are lead by Director Tom Hamilton and include Stage Crew Supervisor, Jeff Thielke, Technical Events Coordinator, James King, Rigger/Master Carpenter, Rogan Girard, Audio/Video Engineer, Jack Hayback, Master Electrician, David Thibodeaux, now being replaced by Bob Harland and Event Services’ provider of niceties Cathy Bravo. And to make sure everything stays copasetic before, during and after each show there is the firm but friendly presence of security under the direction of John Townsend.
Oh yes, there is that other part of the Performing Arts experience, the one in front of the footlights. Despite the depressed marketplace the Center managed to fill the seats and put forward excellent shows that offered great inspiration, good humor and uplifting discovery. These are just a few of my own personal favorites; we like to call these the Ellsie Awards.
E-Word: the great Garrison Keilor came first and gave his best show ever in the big hall. I consider this man a bona-fide national treasure and along with great yarn spinning of tales about ice fishing disasters, Clarence Bunsen and the Herdsmen, and the Python under the Pederson’s porch he surprised us all with five really earthy sonnets.
E-Culture: one of the great teams in American music; composer William Bolcomb and mezzo-soprano Joan Morris visited for a matinee of delectable songs from a full century of American popular music. Her “After the Ball” and “You’re Lucky to Me” made the historical tunes shine like gold and his playing of his own composition “Graceful Ghost” was absolutely enchanting.
“Hairspray” was great fun but the amazing performance by stand-in Sharon Malane made her the surprise musical star of the season, just barely nudging Anthony Lopez who played the vice-principal in the show that shares this award “the Putnam County Spelling Bee” which was a very clever new-style musical.
E-Spectacular: Moiseyev Dance Company was an awesome experience of color, music and dance that absolutely dazzled the full house for two excitement-drenched hours. Moiseyev finished with the “Polovetsian Dances” that can only be called magnificent. I only hope they can be coaxed our way again soon.
E-Roots: John Hammond and Marcia Ball just knocked out the joint with authentic blues and New Orleans style roots music. Typical of Hammonds superb playing was the hurt blues of “You Know That’s Cold” that was only matched by Marcia Ball’s fiery finish to her set including a “Crawfishin’” that made you believe you were sitting in the Big Easy.
E-World Music: “Shidara” is yet one more proponent of the pulse pounding art of Taiko, performed passionately by this group lead by a woman named Chabo. “Niebuchi” was typical of the intense focus the music can achieve but the final number celebrating a Harvest Festival (“Hana Mitsuri”) in their home village was truly grand with many of the audience joining the musicians on stage. On this night West met East with results that would make summit makers envious.
E-Rock: In one of the musical surprises of the year the unlikely rock winner was an orchestra. “The Music of Led Zeppelin” took the rather precarious leap into the unknown acceptance of such a show and passed with flying dark colors. With the help of guitarist George Cintron and elastic voiced Randy Jackson the young Windborne Symphony made Led’s music come back to life in living color.
E-Vocal: The towering in more ways than one, Ronan Tynan set the standard for singers in a late summer sizzler that was long on Irish tunes and short on ceremony. His reading of “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” was about as romantic a song as you will ever hear. An added treat to this show was Tynan’s accompanist, Billy Lewis who tossed in a delectable “Blackberry Winter” that put a bittersweet ache in the old ticker.
E-Lex Education: “Whose Line Is It Anyway” set up shop at Cerritos once more with Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie just performing one word miracle after another without as much as one little goof. The packed house roared with laughter and participated gleefully as the word puzzles unraveled on the stage in a totally improvisational show.
E-Vintage: Jack Jones who must gargle with water from Ponce de Leon’s fountain came to the Center with credentials that go back before even 8-track and demonstrated that sometimes you really do get better with age. A singer’s singer, the septuagenarian gave a class in vocal artistry. When he sang “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” it was really and truly mesmerizing.
E-Blues: Robert Cray put on a fully packed and perfectly paced show at tax-time with astounding, face melting guitar work on “I’m Walking” that defined the depth and emotion of the blues
E-Class Classic: Judy Collins, always the most elegant lady on any stage stunned the big hall into complete rapt attention when she sang “Send In the Clowns” like only she can.
E-Conscience: Sweet Honey in the Rock extended the olive branch and antiseptic six-part harmony in one of the best shows of the year highlighted by the inspirational “Peace” that was offered with the most sincere hope possible.
Newcomer of the Year: Sweet faced Meaghan Hinkis of ABT II danced exquisitely with confidence and style that showed her to be a future star of ballet. We were privileged to see her on a night back in September.
E-Holiday: At the Charlie Brown Christmas show it was not just the brilliant playing of pianist/composer David Benoit and his fine quartet on comfort Christmas tunes like “Skating.”. There was an absolute abundance of presents under this Christmas tree. Benoit produced a show that transcended others by bringing in the youthful but accomplished Asia America Youth Orchestra to swell the sounds and a fantastic chorus of kids from “Lunada Bay Elementary School Music Department Choir” who quite literally stole the show with voice and visions of holiday joy.
Performance of the year: It is virtually impossible to reach higher heights than Sonny Rollins and anytime that Cerritos lures him into the hall they are making musical history. In his April show the Saxophone Colossus blazed totally new paths including a reading of his trademark “Why Was I Born” that answered the question fully in my mind. Awesome!
Show of the Year: funny that the best show was one with the least hullabaloo, no bells and whistles or fancy staging. On this literate and jocular evening it was just Loudon Wainwright III and Leo Kottke playing and singing some of the best songs in music. Wainwright’s “Another Song in C” and Kottke’s “Ice Miner” alone would have made this show a blue ribbon winner.
Honorable Mention: even though my visit to the “Colorado Folks Festival” was clearly outside of Cerritos it did contain some great music, including Patty Griffin, Todd Snider, Missy Higgins and Greg Brown showing us what the human potential is when you are holding a guitar and a genius for songwriting.
Last and certainly not least the good folks at the Los Cerritos Community News who stay late to put these words on the page and shouts out to those who have stayed on as long as I have. Brian Hews, Linda Bock, Jerry Bernstein, Loren Kopf and others stained by community news ink Helen M. Brown, Chris Callard, Shelley Henderson and Angela Crannon.. Without all of them I would be standing in the Towne Center with a sandwich board.