Posted by: operatheaterink | October 12, 2011

Review: ‘DOLLS! — Not Your Usual Love Story,’ Santa Monica Playhouse, Oct. 12, 2011

Evelyn Rudie is Mother Superior.

She and Chris DeCarlo Teach the Others How It’s Done.

Review: ‘DOLLS! Not Your Usual Love Story,’ Santa Monica Playhouse, Oct. 12, 2011

The Cast of 'Dolls'


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

Santa Monica Playhouse has been around almost as long as I have. I remember when Ted Roter was at the helm. I was majoring in Theatre Arts at UCLA at the time. Then Evelyn Rudie and Chris DeCarlo took over, and I blindly lost track. Well, my brain has made a comeback, and in the nick of time. The theatre is in the midst of a 50th anniversary celebration. But the weak economy is hitting the theatre hard. After a performance of the new musical, “DOLLS! — Not Your Usual Love Story,” Rudie asked the audience to contribute to the “Save the Playhouse” campaign. The idea seemed incomprehensible to me. Why should such a campaign be necessary for a theatre that has inhabited the center of Santa Monica for more than 50 years? Its charming presence just south of Wilshire on 4th Street reminds me of a structure that should be designated a historic landmark. I have only seen the Main Stage and the Other Space. Entrances to both theatres adjoin a charming central mission-style patio. The theatre’s presence in Santa Monica cannot be replaced with other newer venues. Santa Monica Playhouse is a landmark with or without a designation. Rudie and DeCarlo work tirelessly to provide professional theatre to the community as well as programs for young people locally and abroad. This theatre under their leadership should not be in jeopardy. You cannot replace the old with the new. Some things grow sweeter with age, and the Santa Monica Playhouse is one of them.

That said, while watching “Dolls,” I couldn’t help but reflect on Rudie’s performance as Babette, the baby doll. Rudie was a child star when she and I were children. At that time, we both attended dancing classes taught by the matriarch of tap and jazz: Dee Blacker. While watching Rudie after so many years, I suddenly remembered what Blacker had once told us. She said that there were many dancers, but that the best one on Broadway at the time was Gwen Verdon. The reason, she said, was because Gwen Verdon danced with every part of her body, not just her legs and arms. Her energy was generated from the top of her head to her face, fingertips and toes. Blacker believed that if you didn’t dance with your entire body, you were not a dancer.

Although there were no taxing dance numbers in this production of “Dolls,” I watched Rudie’s face, body and movement. She never broke character, and every part of her body was engaged from her fingertips to her toes for the complete 90 minutes she was on stage. She was the Mother Superior advising all the other dolls, but she was also the Mother Superior of the actors’ ensemble – teaching them all how to do it.

I remember Rudie as Eloise on “Playhouse 90.” As I recall, the character was an annoying little blond 7-year-old, probably in competition with Patty McCormack’s Rhoda in “The Bad Seed,” only less evil. The role won Rudie an Emmy nomination. She will always be a star in my book although her life turned in another direction when she and husband DeCarlo changed their focus to Santa Monica Playhouse.

Rudie hasn’t lost her touch. She and DeCarlo (who played the marionette, Gigoletto) were charming, both maintaining accents, hers French. They conceived the book of “Dolls” based on Rudie’s childhood memories of a doll that was passed down to her from her godmother. The play unveiled the viewpoints of the nine distinctive dolls who protected and befriended their young owners until the owners outgrew them and put them in the attic. These forgotten dolls once had dreams of their own. Some had hoped to become mortal, but now they were simply neglected.

Since opera has been my focus, this play was reminiscent to me of Leoncavallo’s commedia dell’arte opera, “Pagliacci,” with a little bit of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” mixed in. The white facial makeup and colorful costuming by the multi-talented Ashley Hayes, who is more multi-talented than most people realize, is another reason the Santa Monica Playhouse artistic crew can never be replaced.

Almost every doll actor in the play showed major talent. Their voices were singularly lovely to listen to. I liked Serena Dolinsky’s vocal quality best. She played Marguerite, the Victorian doll, with grace. Annie Mackay, Just Plain Katy, the rag doll, was adorable and made me think of “The Wizard of Oz.” Jessica Erin Bennett as the Trixter had verve. Khalia Davis as Papusza was exotic. Melissa Gentry (Fussy Fanny) seemed to have different personalities in each of her costumes since she was the fashion doll. At times her exuberance was a little overwhelming since her vocal pitch wasn’t always pleasing; yet for some of her numbers, her sound was mellow and full, and she always looked great, especially when wearing a tight-fitting black evening gown. Nancy Dobbs Owen was well-cast as Valentina Ballerina. She securely displayed her technique on point. Her clean footwork far surpassed her vocality, however, but it was her ballet which mattered the most.

“Dolls” is geared more for the young than the old. I enjoyed it immensely, though, because it brought out the child in me. As for adults, women have probably liked it better than men. Although the story line was uncomplicated, the colorful but simple set with kaleidoscopic vivid costumes made the play appealing to me. The best part was the music and lyrics by Rudie and Matthew Wrather, which were woven creatively in between the dialogue. It was happy music sung with orchestrations that were piped in through an elaborate sound system. Songs like “I Want to Laugh” and “La Petite Danse D’Amour” made me smile. I loved Babette drinking from her baby bottle and the subplot on love between Just Plain Katy and Lt. Larry, the toy soldier who was so aptly portrayed by Garett Stevens.

The dolls were as alive as mortals. Their actions were specific and exact thanks to director DeCarlo and Rudie, thus making the production appear well-rehearsed, well-oiled and professional. The choreography was simple, yet apropos for the small space. I commend Rudie and DeCarlo for a unique fairy-tale-like musical comedy production that shows creativity, talent, and a sensitivity to the audience for which it was created.

“Dolls” continues through Nov. 20.

Santa Monica Playhouse
1211 4th Street, Santa Monica, Calif. 90401. 1-310-394-9779.
Director: Chris DeCarlo
Musical Director: Serena Dolinsky
Set Design and Construction: Tim Chadwick, James Cooper, George J. Vennes III
Costume Design: Ashley Hayes
Lighting Design: James Cooper
Ballet Choreography: Nancy Dobbs Owen
Special Effects: Nima Ghassemian