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Sandra Tsing Loh puts her spin on a holiday favorite

When she was in middle school, Sandra Tsing Loh desperately wanted to play Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy in the local ballet school’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.” In fact, she longed to have a part in every play.

Loh didn’t nab that cherished role in “The Nutcracker.” Instead, she says, “I wound up in the bottom row of a pyramid of rats, with some boys from judo. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. Actually, I wasn’t even part of the totem pole. I was below it.”

It didn’t help that her older sister was the prime candidate for the role she so desired.

Starting Sunday, Loh is reliving and re-presenting the past in her revised and reimagined production of “Sugar Plum Fairy.” The three-person, coming-of-age play, written by Loh and adapted from her solo comedy show of the same name, will be performed through Dec. 24 on South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage.

“It’s an homage to the perfect older sibling,” said Loh, 55, who has become known in Southern California and beyond for her plays, articles, books and witty segments on local and National Public Radio. “It’s a love letter to anyone who loves theater.”

“Sugar Plum Fairy” is a comic exploration of the iconic Christmastime ballet, as well as a remembrance of a childhood fraught with trauma, pre-teen angst and sibling rivalry.

“It’s based on what actually did happen in Southern California in the 1970s,” said Loh, the youngest of three children. “Not all of us get to be a ballerina or a star. Most of us are neither. But we love theater, we love the form, and we love singing in the shower.”

Loh originally workshopped and debuted a one-woman version of “Sugar Plum Fairy” at Seattle Repertory Theatre, then performed it in 2003 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. At the time, The Los Angeles Times praised it as a “ferocious, yet ultimately soulful holiday show.”

This production at South Coast Repertory has been tweaked and expanded, and co-stars actors Shannon Holt and Tony Abatemarco.

Loh previously worked with Holt in “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” a theatrical version of her critically acclaimed 2014 memoir. “Madwoman” premiered at SCR in 2015.

Making the personal public

In “Madwoman,” Loh discussed the unenviable plight of going through menopause, middle age and a divorce with two young kids in the picture.

Indeed, in much of her work, Loh mines her own personal life and makes it the material for her plays, books and radio sketches.

“All of life is material,” she said. “My family, my daughters, they’re so used to having a mother who’s writing constantly about what’s going on.

“It’s interesting, life out there. It can be a burden. When people — strangers even — run into me, they invariable tell me all kinds of things. They spill their guts. They tell me stuff they’ve never told anyone, when I’m sitting next to them on a plane. I’m guessing they’re empathizing with my work.”

Sandra Tsing Loh rehearses “Sugar Plum Fairy,” which will be performed at South Coast Repertory.
(Photo by Drew A. Kelley )

A multimedia talent

Loh has written six books, a number of plays and stand-up monologues, several piano compositions for National Public Radio, and the score for the 1998 Oscar-winning documentary, “Breathing Lessons.”

She has penned dozens of articles for LA Weekly and The Atlantic Monthly, where she continues to serve as a contributing editor. She is a Pushcart Prize winner, a MacDowell Fellow and a three-time National Magazine Award nominee.

Loh’s radio experience includes stories on “This American Life,” National Public Radio, American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” “The Loh Life” on KCRW-FM and KPCC-FM and “The Loh Down on Science,” which can be heard locally on KPCC (89.3 FM).

She also is an adjunct professor of visual art and science communication at UC Irvine, teaching drama to undergraduates and writing and radio to science graduate students.

“It’s rewarding to teach science students, because they’re great at following directions,” she said. “For scientists, it’s as important now to communicate clearly as ever.”

The most talented students help write “The Loh Down on Science” and get paid for their work.

“They break down research into stories and clear language,” she said. “They get how important that is.”

As for “Sugar Plum Fairy” and her other theatrical work, Loh relies on her experience — plus audience reactions during previews — to tell if things are working well or not.

“I’ve put a few decades into this,” Loh said. “That’s what previews are for. I have sort of a performance style that’s evolved over the years. In this show, the touch points are: Christmas is tough. Parking is terrible. The commercialism is crass. But the whole universal theme is that, while we are disappointed in life’s outcomes — i.e., usually that big Christmas present is not a bike for you, it may be just a Weber grill for dad — humans still have the ability to hope, again and again.”

If You Go

What: “Sugar Plum Fairy”

When: Sunday through Dec. 24; previews run Dec. 3-7; regular performances run Dec. 9-24

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $23

Information: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org.

Richard Chang is a contributor to Times Community News.


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