All she needs is wealth, culture, and social standing

Michael Hovance as Val Du Val with his "Boom Boom" girls. Photo courtesy of the MBCC Theater

Rags to Riches

A big hand for “Little Me” in Manhattan Beach

by Bondo Wyszpolski

The Manhattan Beach Community Church Theatre began with a few productions in the latter 1950s, and then really went to town in the ‘80s and hasn’t stopped since. While we often speak of theater groups as companies, this one seems closer to an extended family in that many of the same personnel, the behind-the-scenes tech people as well as the actors, are involved in production after production.

So there’s a certain camaraderie built from long-standing collaborators that has a way of rubbing off on the audience. In other words, an ease and informality prevails and we can sense that in addition to staging the best show they can with limited means everyone’s having fun. There’s a homegrown, hometown charm here which also gives the impression that, unlike seeing a show at the Taper or the Ahmanson where viewers may be unforgiving, stumbles or flub will be taken in stride, maybe with a shrug, and no one will be unduly chastised for it.

Which brings us to the current production, “Little Me,” which opened last weekend and picks up again this Friday. It’s amusing, clever, and entertaining.

“Little Me” is a musical comedy that first appeared on Broadway in 1962. The book was written by Neil Simon (and where would community theater be without him?), the music composed by Cy Coleman, with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh. It was based on a novel by Patrick Dennis which purports to be the memoirs by one Belle Poitrine. This production is directed by Paula Kelley and choreographed by Angela Asch, with a live orchestra conducted by Rick Heckman.

The story toggles between past and present. In between scenes, although one is tempted to call them skits, the older Belle (Donna Stogryn) prattles into the microphone handheld by Patrick Dennis (longtime South Bay actor and director Perry Shields) about her journey from rags to riches or, to put it another way, from the wrong side to the right side of the tracks.

Michael Hovance (yes, again) as Mr. Pinchley with ensemble members. Photo courtesy of the MBCC Theater

Belle as a young woman is played by Jonni Swensen as a sort of big hearted but naive country bumpkin in the mode of Lil’ Abner’s Daisy Mae or Elly May Clampett of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Nonetheless, that innate goodness is also her saving grace.

It’s quite by accident that Belle Schlumpfert (yes, her doozy of a maiden name) encounters Noble Eggelston (Michael Hovance), whose curiosity has brought him down from The Bluff to Drifter’s Row. It’s basically love at first sight and love everlasting as soon as their eyes meet and their hands touch, with a burst of music from the orchestra whenever this happens, and rest assured it won’t happen just once.

Noble is about to celebrate his 16th birthday and he immediately invites Belle, who shows up in what could pass for a saloon gal’s outfit from the Wild West. All of Noble’s affluent, stuck-up friends go out of their way to mock the poor girl, which yields the jubilant “Rich Kids Rag” dance number as well as the appearance of Noble’s shocked mother, played to snooty perfection by Michele Selin. There’s no way she’ll allow her son to dirty his hands with a girl who lacks wealth, culture, and social standing. And so, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, Belle is driven from The Bluff, although not before she and Noble reaffirm their love for one another.

So now you know what the story’s about — Belle’s pursuit of those three qualities that will put her on equal footing with her beloved. A detailed synopsis, however, may confuse anyone who hasn’t yet seen the show, but being aware that Belle has hoops to jump through and hurdles to clear should suffice.

Meanwhile, “Little Me” is chock full of gags, verbal and visual, and they pop up everywhere like gophers on a golf course. Furthermore, and this is another of the work’s hallmarks, the lead actor plays multiple roles, and so Michael Hovance returns as old miserly Mr. Pinchley, French entrepreneur Val Du Val, nearsighted doughboy Fred Poitrine, film director Otto Schnitzler, and Prince Cherney. Each character seems miles away from the others, and Hovance is hilarious in almost all of them. It goes without saying that it’s this role that shoulders much of the burden of the show.

The scenes, the skits, the sketches, the vignettes, whatever we wish to call them, are largely effective, but there are a couple, mostly scooted down into the second act, that are less compelling. But maybe, too, this comes down to personal preference.

Good casting is of course essential even for a local production, and we have that for the leads (Swensen and Hovance), whom I encountered a while back in Surf City’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” The rest of the cast ranges from good and decent to competent, but one might want to keep an eye on Bennie and Bernie (Jeff Asch and Lawrence Moreno), who seem like characters out of “The Producers.” They have a small part, but Asch unobtrusively stands out with his fluid physical moves and his facial expressions. You never know what quality of acting you’ll find at your local playhouse.

A few more cast members from “Little Me.” Photo provided by the MBCC Theater

It’s also quite a large cast, and you’ll need someone else’s fingers and toes to help you count them all. I’ve only named a few of the actors, but the tech folks are no less vital, such as the costume coordinator Susan Norris and her fellow seamstresses Ruth Jackson, Susan Button, and Nancy Brennan, or the hair and makeup contingent: Susan Button, Patty Jarvis, Jessica Hair, and Katie Jamison. You’ll find the unabridged version in your program.

Noble and Belle’s paths crisscross frequently, like shoelaces on a boot, as Fate pulls them together and pushes them apart. A couple of plot twists towards the end caps everything off.

This isn’t a Broadway caliber production by any means, but in the way that an impromptu sketch can have more vivacity and immediacy than a finished painting, it serves up more easygoing pleasure than might be imagined for a local let alone regional show. “Little Me” is a little gem.

Little Me is being performed at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1, as well as 2 p.m. on April 2, in the Manhattan Beach Community Church Community Hall, 303 S. Peck Ave, Manhattan Beach. Tickets, $25, available at the box office or at ER


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