The term “community theater” might conjure up thoughts of good intentions but awkward acting and homemade sets. Not so with the Stepping Stone Players, Glendale’s “community theater at its best.”
The troupe members have a confidence and professionalism about them that make audience members feel they’re at a top-notch production. Their current show, “Cheaper by the Dozen,” is full of artistry, and while not a Broadway spectacle, it is a heartfelt piece of period theater.
Set in the 1920s, this comedy is full of vernacular like “By Jingo!” but deals with the same teenage concerns as today — school, chores, boyfriends and stern, worried fathers. More than that, it’s the story of the remarkable, and real, Gilbreth family. Frank Gilbreth and his wife, Lillian, reared 12 amazingly competent children. (One child actually died at a young age, but they always referred to themselves as the “dozen.”)
The parents employed a unique style of family management incorporating business productivity methods and “efficiency of movement” techniques. They had weekly family council meetings encouraging democratic involvement by all. In reality, though, Dad was a strict, but jolly, dictator. It’s amusing to see these parenting theories put to the test. Frank and Lillian get everyone to buy into them by injecting a healthy dose of humor and truckloads of love.
Under the sensitive direction of Susan Kussman, the characters, particularly the youngsters, are allowed room to stretch their wings and show real, childlike personalities. It would have been easy to presume the children were upright, stuffed shirts, but each one is high-spirited and loose-jointed, flopping around the living room set like a real kid. Each has a unique and strong personality.
The casting is excellent with a few unexpected but intriguing choices. Sarah Lonsert is graceful and versatile as Ernestine Gilbreth, the second-eldest girl and narrator along with her brother Frank Gilbreth Jr., played by Andy Kenareki.
Onstage, Kenareki projects a confidence and maturity beyond his years. Film and TV actress Christina Gabrielle, brings a joyous spontaneity to the stage as young Martha. Sam Lant, as Bill, is a natural comedian delivering one-liners with panache. Sarah Koonse, Jacob Bonham and Quinn Kelly project their unique voices equally as well.
And the lovely Kate McLeod is charming as the eldest girl, Anne, who is torn between responsibility and frivolity. She’s dying to date a boy or two, but Dad won’t let her. One of the potential boyfriends, the school cheerleader, is played by the larger-than-life Chile Muwelle. He blows on to the stage like a hurricane, shouting cheers and enamoring everyone. Everyone except Dad, of course, who cuts him right down to size. Dad, or Frank Gilbreth Sr., is played by Mitch Lewis, a top voice-over artist in Los Angeles.
If you close your eyes, you can hear the hundreds of promos he’s voiced. But when you open them again, you see a man with depth and dignity and undying devotion to his beloved family. There’s great sympatico between him and his wife, played by the elegant Phyllis McKenzie. She holds herself with such ease and grace, she’s as comforting to have around as, well, a mother.
I read in the liner notes that the real Lillian Gilbreth was a dynamic force in the business world, highly unusual for a woman in her day. I wish I had seen a little more of that impressive person on stage.
The set is beautifully dressed in what look like authentic antiques. And the costumes are appropriate for the 1920s.
The Little Theatre at Hoover High School, where the play is held, is a comfortable, intimate space with a wonderfully wide stage. But something must be done about the lighting. They make distracting noises when turned off and on.
“Cheaper by the Dozen” is a charming play acted with skill and earnestness. Sure, the kids tripped over their lines a few times, but the ensemble as a whole was tight and the overall sentiment bittersweet.
LISA DUPUY has three siblings and grew up in a neighborhood where families of 12 and 13 were commonplace.