It is downright miraculous that in this sickly economy the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts continues to be one of the finest theaters in America without lowering standards or abandoning their lofty goals of bringing culture to Southern California. In a world where half the population is staring down at tiny devices clutched in their mitts or sitting at home trying to make something out of cable TV, the great hall on Center drive continues to give folks reasons to come out of their electronic caves and see the world of the performing arts. For years we have heard jokes about the auto square and now YesCerritos! but this Performing Arts Center is not only the pride of the small city with big ambitions but a proven role model for other venues in the West. This operation from top to bottom is something to be very proud of in many ways.
While I have been coming to the center and marveling at the shows for almost two full decades I honestly never tire of feeling gratitude for the people who make that place a world-class theater. Since I come in at ground level I am met first by the best box office I have ever seen in my horrifyingly many moons. The bosses are Nate Chavez and Cristopher Larocco who seem to get great attitudes out of every single representative which just makes the first impression for visitors one of love at first sight. Once I had a program with all their names and I would name them all if I could but if I ever hit the lottery I will buy each one a car like Oprah. It is a deck full of aces. Inside you have the many dark-blazered hospitality staff who make you feel right at home and directors like Tony Erdelji smoothing any rough edges and crossing the t’s in comfortable. House manager Alan Strickland does his job so well you hardly know he is there until you need something, then he is always there. The same can be said about the strong presence of Vince Roldan, security that never intrudes but is right where you need him.
Again, this year more than any other I noticed how seamless the operation behind the scenes works, especially the technical crew who just get better and better each year. The names are Tom Hamilton, James King, Rogan Girard, Jack Hayback, John Palmer, and Jeff Thielke who should be lauded in the programs but they are too busy making sure everything is perfect. I haven’t seen the hall vary much from that standard all year. All of this is overseen by Dianne Cheney who has taken the helm and kept a straight course of excellence that has been steered by her great predecessors. Lastly, I would know nothing of any of this without the gentle guidance and steel-trap like intelligence of publicist/press liaison Lori Levine-Yonan. Thank You a thousand times Lori!
Without further ado here are the Ellsies for 2011:
E-Dance: Sean Curran Company- a memorable, indelible evening of modern dance lead by director Curran who began with the powerful “Aria/Apology” and finished with “Left Exit” that said so much with movement that even words cannot express.
E-Indy: Round Mountain- An amazingly fresh and creative group comprised of the brothers Rothschild who played an array of instruments from around the world and sang witty and insightful songs they composed. They were a perfect example of the depth of the Sierra Room shows. E-word: Garrison Keilor- Despite recovering from a frightening stroke Maestro Keilor commanded the Cerritos stage and told his stories, sang songs and recited poetry that all seemed even more poignant due to his dance with the grim reaper in the previous months.
E-favorite sons: On Ensemble- this group may center their sound on taiko drumming and classical training of instruments from the old country but their songs and sound are a unique fusion with modern music that really works. A spellbinding show before an appreciative crowd cemented the lads as local favorites who should be invited back every season.
E-musical: Spamalot- a traveling troupe delivered the sensation of recent Broadway spam-smash to the big hall and brought Monty Python to living color with songs and silliness including a terrific “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Steve McCoy as King Arthur was exceptional without exception.
E-Classical: Sejong Soloists- It’s really saying something when a group of young musicians beat out the likes of Andre Watts but the young all-star ensemble gave the best classical concert of the year that was elevated to the top spot by the powerful but nuanced piano playing of the elegant and experienced Orli Shahan.
E-Classic-rock: Pink Floyd Experience- While it was not the boys from 1970’s and it was not David Gilmour pouring out his psychedelic guitar solos but it was a clever cover of the famed “Animals” album done on the typically extravagant Pink Floyd scale by a band totally up to the task, especially guitarist Tom Quinn who made us believe the 70’s were alive despite the audience’s lack of big hair and terrible fashion.
E-Comedy: Louis Anderson- on the bill with Paul Rodriquez, Louis stole this show with his droll, dry-wit and stories of his colorful childhood in Minnesota. His set completing bit on aging was as funny and on-point as any heard in the hall’s history. E-Hall of Fame: Brian Wilson- Over the years the Performing Arts Center has had some giants of entertainment who can genuinely be called genius and placed in the music hall of fame. Such was the case for the former driving force in the great Beach Boys who also created a pretty cool concert with an excellent band that recreated the totally bitchen Brian Wilson sound. E-World Music: Yamato- Cerritos seems to have become a taiko drumming hot spot and we are glad they fill the great hall with this amazing feast of percussion. This season we were blessed with a visit from Yamato from the mother country where the big drums first boomed. This young and spectacularly expressive troupe of men and women made the Performing Arts Center throb with exciting and superbly harmonic drumming.
E-Old but Gold- Chubby Checker-Truly an inspiration for those with snow on the roof and notches on the belt Chubby Checker made history by just walking out on stage after fifty years twisting and totally rocked the place. His powerhouse band, “the Wildcats” made all of the many in the audience twist again like we did last summer (in 1960).
E-Classical Performance- Ray Chen violin- Chen appeared with gifted pianist Julio Elizade who was no slouch himself but the young violinist’s inspired playing of J.S. Bach’s “Chaconne from Partita in d minor” was a triumphant concert in itself and was just one of six incredibly beautiful pieces in a superb concert.
E-Charm and Musicianship- Marvin Hamlisch- If you just think of Marvin Hamslisch as the guy who provided the ragtime theme for the classic movie “the Sting” you have missed some wonderful music. The charming and erudite Hamlisch dazzled a matinee crowd with his compositions and piano mastery ranging from films like “The Way We Were” to the overflowing evergreen score of “A Chorus Line” while telling fascinating stories of his journey from a humble beginnings to being one of the rare individuals to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.
E-New Faces- the Backbeats- While the backbeats were the curtain raisers for excellent headliner “the Street-Corner Symphony” you just could not be excited by such a superb idea and group drawn from local music schools. Performing on the television show “Sing Out,” the eight-member “Backbeats” pumped new blood into the entire idea of a Capella harmony used on contemporary compositions. The results were wonderful for one of the best show of the year.
E-Show of the Year: Keb Mo-Actually the gentleman from Compton won both the highly contested show of the year and the holiday show of the year without a struggle. He just has it all: poise, polish, great songs, an expressive blues voice and one hell of a great hand on the guitar. While he mixed materials his ballads, especially “We Don’t Need It” was simply out of this world good.
E-Performance of the Year- Perla Batalla- When dealing with a talent this big you have to use a big word and I would say Perla Batalla is polyphiloprogenitive. The big word means prolifically talented and inventive which would accurately describe her development over the years to an intelligent and gifted singer who can turn a pretty good song into a masterpiece. Such was the case with her reading of “Love Is Everything” which was resplendently brilliant in voice, passion and nuance. If you were there you will never forget it, I know I won’t.
Lastly, thanks to Brian Hews and the staff at the Los Cerritos Community News who sometimes put my words onto the page so that great music and theater at the Center has a second life.