Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, It Vas a Fun Night, Ya

L-R: Tracy Lore, Chris Kauffmann, Larry Raben, and Anne Montavon.
Photos by Ed Krieger

When October hits and Halloween horror movies begin to flood late night TV, you can always count on at least one station somewhere to air Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic comedy
Young Frankenstein. But, this year, the situation is a little different. With the recent passing of Gene Wilder, who stars in the title role and also co-wrote the film with Brooks, Young Frankenstein has been making many more appearances than usual in tribute to Wilder’s uncommon genius. As a writer and actor, the film was some of his finest work and will continue to make audiences laugh for years to come.

Young Frankenstein is a brilliant spoof of the Universal Pictures 1930’s black and white horror movies Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein, based on Mary Shelley’s gothic novel. In 2007, Mel Brooks, assisted by co-bookwriter Thomas Meehan, adapted the film as a stage musical which instantly became a hit with audiences. It isn’t surprising. The material is a natural fit for the stage with its spooky locale, dramatic storyline, and crazy characters and it has remained a crowd-pleaser ever since.

In a stroke of incredibly (and sadly) fortuitous timing, Palos Verdes Performing Arts had the show scheduled on its 2016 season. You can see their lively and entertaining production directed by James W. Gruessing, Jr. right now at the Norris Center and you should. It’s a wonderfully Wild(er) good time and a terrific way to begin the haunting season.

Anne Montavan, Chris Kauffmann and Larry Raben

All of the best jokes and bits are intact, from the “Roll in the Hay” wagon ride, which becomes a standout number for winsome Anne Montavon (Inga) singing and yodeling with innocent exuberance, to the classic revolving bookcase scene “put…the candle…down” for straight man Larry Raben (Dr. Frankenstein), to Tracy Lore’s (Frau Blucher) deliriously funny “He Vas My Boyfriend” reveal. Her performance of the outrageous comedy song is equal parts maudlin melodrama and throaty German Kit Kat Club chanteuse. It’s hard to say who corners the market on laughs more.

Raben bears an uncanny resemblance to Wilder, sounds like him when he speaks, and has impeccable timing in the deadpan humor department. The Monster (Pablo Rossil) he creates is a 7-foot tall endearing creature with sad eyes and a penchant for even sadder violin music. Their fancy footwork in the musical’s big splashy “Puttin’ on the Ritz” production number is delightful. Choreographer Daniel Smith builds dance numbers like “Ritz,”  “Welcome to Transylvania” and a spectacular “Join the Family Business” with distinctive moves from the original production but incorporates his own flair for comedy (watch for his twist on traditional Russian dance moves).

Vocally, the production also sounds great. Musical direction is by Sean Alexander Bart who leads a live 13-piece orchestra that creates a vividly dynamic presence in the auditorium (there’s not a bad seat anywhere). Voices are strong, diction is crisp, and featured soloists among the ensemble have plenty of moments to shine.

Greg Nicholas and Pablo Rossil

Gene Hackman nearly stole the film in his 5-minute role as a blind hermit the Monster visits when he escapes Frankenstein’s castle and Greg Nicholas makes the most of the scene and his hilarious want song “Please Send Me Someone.” He also doubles as the kooky Inspector Kemp who has given an arm and a leg in the pursuit of justice.

Lindsey Alley rolls out a big brassy belt voice as Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancé and Chris Kauffmann takes on the role of Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, but it’s almost impossible not to compare them to Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman who created the roles. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Alley is quite a bit more abrasive and unlikable as the self-obsessed actress, although her staging is comical, but Kauffmann’s take on Igor falls flat. The role begs for the kind of oddball unpredictable behavior, posturing, and brilliance Feldman used in creating the character but unfortunately he’s just a bloke with an accent and funny makeup here. It’s a missed opportunity.

A dozen or so painted backdrops simulate the interior and exterior of Frankenstein’s mountaintop castle, an ocean liner, underground laboratory, Transylvania Town Hall, town square, and even a giant moon in the sky. Lighting designer Jean Yves-Tessier creates an impressive light show, particularly for the monster reanimation and brain transference scenes that employ some additional electrical magic and Brian Hseih’s accompanying sound effects add to the surprise.

You vant some fun at a big silly musical Halloween treat? You vant Young Frankenstein at the Norris. Ya.

September 23 – October 9, 2016
Palos Verdes Performing Arts 
The Norris Theatre
27570 Norris Center Drive (formerly Crossfield Drive)
Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274

Pablo Rossil and Larry Raben

Tracy Lore and candlestick

Larry Raben and brain

Lindsey Alley and Pablo Rossil

Anne Montavan and Larry Raben

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: A MEXICAN TRILOGY: An American Story: A Legacy of Letting Go

Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez, Ella Saldaña North, Esperanza America,
Julio Macias and Olivia Cristina Delgado. Photos by Grettel Cortes Photography

The essence of Latino Theatre Company’s monumental production of A Mexican Trilogy: An American Story is beautifully captured in the simple photograph above. In this starry night scene, a family poised on the edge of major change looks to the infinite sky with hope. Quietly, in these few moments of silence, we as audience members know exactly how they feel. For what parent has not dreamed of providing a better life for his or her children and what child has not longed for a future where dreams come true?

These ideas are built into the very foundation of Evelina Fernández’s 3-part Mexican-American legacy piece spanning almost a hundred years in a family’s evolution. They are part of what makes the story universally appealing and eloquently representative of the struggles of a growing portion of our population, especially here in California.

The plays were not initially conceived as a trilogy nor were they written chronologically but, little by little, each has found its place in this rich extended narrative. They have all been produced individually in the last few years but are now presented in their entirety for the first time, divided into two separate productions that can be seen alone or consecutively on the same night with a dinner break in between. I chose to see them both on one day and it was the best six hours of my week, being immersed in a world that is familiar but whose details are completely unexpected.

Evelina Fernández and Olivia Cristina Delgado

It is, above all, a family story framed in an instantly recognizable historical context. Part I’s Faith begins in 1915 as young Esperanza and Silvestri leave a Mexico devastated by revolution for what they believe will be a brighter future in Arizona, and continues through the 1940’s war years. Part II, Hope, picks up during JFK’s presidential reign and the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early ‘60s, and Part III, Charity, skips forward to 2005 Los Angeles, after the invasion of Iraq.

Against this indelible backdrop, the Morales family experiences birth, death, love, and loss, as each generation’s distinct characteristics give way to the next.

There is a fluidity to director Jose Luis Valenzuela’s approach to the story that is almost poetic in the way it fuses its keen visual and storytelling elements. Memory creates powerful images and Valenzuela honors that union with reverence and healthy doses of humor enhanced as much by what we see and hear as what we don’t.

Sam Golzari, Esperanza America, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldaña North,
Julio Macias, Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez

A by-product of creating art with a core acting ensemble that has grown together over the course of many years, like this one, is that communication becomes almost intuitive. You can feel it in the audience when you’re watching them. They also bring to the plays their own personal history which enriches the work even further. Lucy Rodriguez, Sal Lopez, Geoffrey Rivas, and playwright Evelina Fernández are an incredible study in truth. That they and their fellow actors (equally as skilled) breathe life into these characters so effortlessly is not at all surprising. It makes the view from our vantage point remarkably humbling and inspiring.

The traditional underpinnings of Part I’s Faith anchor the story culturally before skipping ahead to the idealistic Forties when brave young men went off to war and left many a sweetheart to navigate motherhood alone. Scenes taut with tension coexist alongside those full of situational humor and snappy dialogue that everyone who has siblings will instantly recognize. Hope swells with the optimism of the early Sixties and here the playwright has great fun with a series of fantasy sequences that provide a lively comic diversion. The sobering reality of Charity comes full circle as it connects back to the beginning by acknowledging its roots and providing an avenue to forgiveness.

Geoffrey Rivas, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldaña North and Esperanza America 

Each era brings with it a soundtrack that further accentuates the passage of time. Olivia Cristina Delgado, Ella Saldaña North, and Esperanza America’s 3-part harmonies are particularly satisfying on a dozen or more standards like the Andrews Sisters’ “I Want to be Loved” the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts” and with the additional of their brothers, a dreamy version of “Mr. Sandman” that rivals the original by The Chordettes. America’s lush solos reveal a singular ability to interpret a lyric and a voice that could melt an iceberg. Rosino Serrano’s musical direction – and what I assume are his arrangements – are perfection.

The design is equally as polished. Francois-Pierre Couture’s two-level cutaway scenic design morphs seamlessly from period to period, first incorporating the grainy textures and sepia-toned hues of the more traditional early years and later introducing the bright pinks, blues and sunny yellows so evocative of the budding television era. Thoughtful touches of whimsy in Carlos Browns costumes and Yee Eun Nam’s detailed projections combined with Couture’s set and Pablo Santiago’s lustrous lighting design create both intimacy and a sense of the all-encompassing mystery of life as pivotal moments play out with panoramic appeal.

Lucy Rodriguez and Robert Beltran

Sal Lopez, Sam Golzari, Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez, and Julio Macias

Julio Macias, Ella Saldaña North, Olivia Cristina Delgado, Xavi Moreno,
and Esperanza America

Lucy Rodriguez and Evelina Fernández

Olivia Cristina Delgado, Esperanza America, Kenneth Miles Ellington Lopez and Julio Macias 

A MEXICAN TRILOGY: An American Story
September 8 – October 9, 2016
The Latino Theatre Company @
Los Angeles Theatre Center
Tom Bradley Theater
514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles CA 90013

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: GENERATION ME Tackles Important Teen Issues

Milo Manheim and Anabella Ronson-Benenati. All photos by Shane Alan Bradley

Two years ago this teen musical was one of the best new works to come through Hollywood. Its young writers Julie Soto, Ryan Warren, and composer Will Finan had found a way to tell a story about teen suicide that was relatable to both youth and adults alike. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare; the thought of your own child suffering in silence and one that also speaks to the isolation that persists among many adults as well.

The original cast consisted of an exceptional group of teens, many of whom had been with show from the very beginning. Their commitment to telling the story truthfully made it so much more than the sum of its parts. It was a great example of how the right people telling the right story can move an audience with their honesty. For that reason, I was interested in seeing how the musical had evolved.

Both the 2014 production and the current version were directed by Ryan Warren and the scenic design is much the same, but with the addition of TV screens that track the social media reactions of the characters. The screens are a great idea but would have had more impact if they were larger and set further downstage. The staging, from what I remember, is basically the same and while I’m told the story has had some edits, they weren’t large enough to be noticeable.

The biggest change is the production’s cast. These LA-based young actors have had significantly less rehearsal which has resulted in more generalized performances: now I’m sad so I’ll look at the floor, now I’m mad so I’ll yell. Perhaps that is the challenge when a new cast picks up roles that have been essentially written for another group of actors. It doesn’t work to simply repeat what they did; one’s actions must be grounded in one’s own truth or the characters end up superficial and ultimately less likable.

Chelsea Fitzsimmons and Ian Ferrell

Another challenge using LA actors whose training and credits favor film & TV is that they also, almost without exception, assume a film style of acting on stage that has consequences for the audience. The dialogue and singing are so quiet you can’t hear them (no body mics are used). The sound engineer compensated by lowering the volume of the pre-recorded tracks for Act II, but the actors then lowered their volume even further. Cue pick-up was slow and scene changes sloppy, which created an overall pacing problem.

Stage is a different medium. It requires different skills and a different kind of physical energy from an actor. What works for one does not always work for the other.

Milo Manheim and Will Meyers

As a teaching piece, Generation Me has a lot to say about the issues teens face such as peer pressure, bullying, suicide, and sex. Milo Manheim (Milo Reynolds) and Will Meyers (Cody Bennett) create a realistic relationship that follows the ups and downs of best friend-ship as do Manheim and Anabella Ronson-Benenati in their accidental alliance formed on the “outcast” patio.

When we reach the final emotional choral number “Find My Way” – powerfully staged in its simplicity – it is the kind of theatrical moment that can extricate a tear from even the most resistant heart.

Like most real life tragedies, not all of GenMe’s questions are answered, and that’s a wise decision by the writers. Not tying up all the loose ends creates a space for continuing dialogue about these all-important issues. And if that means one young person who feels hopeless can consider another option, it has done its work.

Julia Nightingale and Johnny Lee

September 16 – October 9, 2016
Hudson Mainstage Theatre 
6539 Santa Monica Blvd 
Hollywood, CA  90038
Ticket Link
No late seating. Recommended for ages 13 and older.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

First Look: La Mirada Theatre's The Hunchback of Notre Dame

From the Oscar®-winning team of Peter Parnell, Alan Menken, and Stephen Schwartz comes a lushly scored retelling of Victor Hugo’s epic story of love, acceptance, and what it means to be a hero. Based on the Victor Hugo novel and songs from the Disney animated feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame showcases the film’s Oscar®-nominated score with new songs by Menken and Schwartz. Librettist Peter Parnell crafts a bold, highly-theatrical take on the moving tale of the scorned bell-ringer Quasimodo (John McGinty), the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Cassie Simone), and the dashing Captain Phoebus (Eric Kunze) in 15th-century Paris. Directed by Glenn Casale with choreography by Dana Solimando. Show runs through October 9, 2016. Tickets:

John McGinty and Keith A. Bearden with the company.
All photos by Michael Lamont

Eric Kunze, Cassie Simone and John McGinty

John McGinty and Cassie Simone

Cassie Simone and Mark Jacoby

The company of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

John McGinty (center) and the company

John McGinty and Dino Nicandros

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review: Pasadena Playhouse's The Fantasticks, a Beautiful Study in Nuance

Ashley Park and Conor Guzmán Photos by Jim Cox Photography.

When The Fantasticks first opened Off-Broadway in 1960, it was a pretty sure bet no one had ever written the word Bengasi [Benghazi] in a musical theatre song lyric before. But at the time, lyricist Tom Jones knew it would evoke the romantic fascination of an exotic land in composer Harvey Schmidt’s whirlwind number “Round and Round.” The song is a thrilling but sobering adventure for the musical’s two innocent young lovers, Matt (Conor Guzmán) and Luisa (Ashley Park), who witness firsthand the violent reality of a world spinning out of control. Still, the song was written long before war broke out in the Middle East and the Twin Towers came down in New York. Yesterday’s allure gives way to today’s terror and another layer of evolution digs in.

Director Seema Sueko taps into the times by setting her Pasadena Playhouse revival of The Fantasticks in a dingy, decaying theater, much like you might find in a bombed-out city. There, actors and musicians creep in and set about the business of presenting their play. Everything they need is created out of objects found amid the junk on scenic designer David F. Weiner’s wondrously musty stage. Droplets of water plink down as sirens and outside disturbances flash intermittently in Joe Huppert’s exquisite sound design. The whole opening sets up a love of the theatre and a need to create no matter what the limitations may be. It made me wonder what kind of world this might be without that love.

Then, with a deep breath from El Gallo (Philip Anthony-Rodriguez), the orchestra begins to play one of the best overtures ever written and a story unfolds. If it’s been years since you’ve seen this musical or if you’ve never seen it before, this is the one production you’ll want to add to your calendar. Pasadena Playhouse’s revival is a beautiful study in nuance and understanding. Funny, haunting, poignant and bittersweet, it is that rare musical theatre experience that exceeds every possible expectation and leaves you wanting more.

L-R: Alyse Rockett, Regi Davis, Philip Anthony-Rodriguez, Gedde Watanabe,
Ashley Park and Conor Guzmán

For my money, the score to The Fantasticks is one of the most brilliant marriages between music and lyrics to be found in a classic musical. The themes in its gorgeous songs return in underscoring throughout the piece whenever romance, danger, longing, or any one of a myriad of significant emotions is within grasp. El Gallo invites the audience to see the play with your ears and though he is speaking about painting the picture of a scene, you can also hear the story in its music. There is so much to take in musically.

The chosen orchestration for this revival is piano and harp, David O. and Liesl Erman respectively, who create an infinitely rich musical journey. The delicate pianissimo phrases in “Metaphor” are breathtaking and “They Were You” begins as softly as a caress before building to a lush duet and then circling back from whence it came. Both accompaniment and vocals contain gorgeous phrasing. There is poetry in the sound of Ashley Park’s voice and wonder in Conor Guzmán’s.

Sexy innuendo gives way to a driving accelerando in “I Can See It” as music director David O.’s virtuosic piano performance explodes with unrelenting energy underneath Guzmán and Rodriguez’s long legato vocal phrases until the number turns into a three-way tour de force performance. The harp, as moonlight, beckons both lovers and audience into the forest in a beautiful make believe castle scene for “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” (Guzmán’s exuberant charm bursts from every pore) and although Park sings the phrase “happy ending,” Schmidt’s minor melody foreshadows the pain to come.

The score is full of texture and when a director and ensemble can reveal the many twists and turns within the musical with such tenderness and honesty, you want to be there to be moved right along with them. There is no doubt, this production of The Fantasticks is a triumph for the Playhouse’s artistic director, Sheldon Epps, as he begins his final season leading the charge.

L-R: Regi Davis, Gedde Watanabe and Philip Anthony-Rodriguez

For humor and a nod to the sweet comedy of a much more innocent time, Gedde Watanabe and Regi Davis (Hucklebee and Bellomy) make great use of their vegetables, fake feud, and wall in scene and song – wall provided by Alyse Rockett as The Mute, a story facilitator and location scout responsible for several lovely moments of stage magic.

The ease of Shirley Piersons costumes assist with character recognition – plaid for the comics, the muteutilitarian streetwear, a whimsical splash of clear blue sky and blossoming flowers in the ingenues skirt, long underwear as a blank canvas for the actors and a tattered doublet for the Elizabethan.  

When the audience least expects it, a secret weapon emerges from a nondescript trunk in the form of Hal Linden as Henry, an old Shakespearean actor. This is the point in many productions where the energy often flags as actors past their prime milk scenes ad nauseam without payoff or point. But what delight there is in Mr. Linden’s portrayal of a career actor of many years, not as spry or as sharp as he used to be but still in search of a stage on which to perform. Lines like “young rooster looking for the pinch of adventure” and “beyond that road’s an episode waiting to be unzipped” take on new meaning with his yeoman’s insight.

Hal Linden and Amir Talai

Accompanying him is his sidekick Amir Talai as Mortimer, an actor skilled at dying, committed to traveling the world with Henry wherever the footlights beckon. Thankfully, he no longer plays an Indian chief in the Playhouse’s production – a character holdover from an early Western incarnation of the play which always made me a little uncomfortable. Following that original version, the writers (happily) took the script in a new direction with influence from playwright Edmund Rostand’s Les Romanesques, who would later become known for his more widely recognized classic, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Today The Fantasticks remains the longest running musical in history with productions consistently being performed around the world. But all you need to do is make your way to Pasadena to try to remember that long ago September. The shows message speaks to audiences of all ages and its staying power confirms what we all know in our hearts. Despite everything, love is always worth it, no matter the cost.

Ashley Park and Conor Guzmán
September 6 – October 2, 2016
Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review: The Troubies and Getty Villa Throw a HAUNTED HOUSE PARTY

Beth Kennedy and Matt Walker in Haunted House Party
All photos by Craig Schwartz

Troubadour Theatre Company’s classless clowns of classical comedy go rogue in their latest adaptation at the Getty Villa. Taking generous liberties with the source material (Plautus’s Mostellaria) they reinvent the over-2000-year-old play as Haunted House Party, A Roman Comedy in their own unique style. Yes, it’s definitely “a comedy tonight.” 

Directed and adapted by head clown, Matt Walker, and accompanied by a band of mostly stalwart Troubie regulars, this one certainly contains the requisite tenets of Troubie playtime: classic musical numbers refashioned with story-specific lyrics, broad characters designed to spark an immediate (usually comic) response, large doses of improvised gags, multiple jabs at newsworthy figures, and a fair amount of circus whimsy on the side.

Coincidentally, early Roman theatre – with its farcical stories, stock characters, commedia dell’arte, and burlesque influences – is a perfect fit for these modern-day troubadours. The Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks and since the Getty Villa’s performance space is patterned after the outdoor ancient Greek amphitheatres, the environment provides one more layer of stylish authenticity.

What this Troubie production adds, however, that isn’t quite as typical of their previous work, is an abundance of explicit humor, both verbal and visual, that makes the play an adults-only affair. Plan on a bawdy night out and you won’t be disappointed, but if you lack the fortitude for indelicate humor, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

L-R: Rick Batalla, Misty Cotton, Matt Walker, Matthew Patrick Davis,
Tyler King, Joey Keane, and Nicholas Cutro

The story is not unlike one you’d find today, but for its period details. A young man (Nicholas Cutro) parties the days away in excess while his father (Michael Faulkner) is out of town on business. Money complications occur when he spends a great deal of dad’s funds to free a slave girl (Joey Keane) he has fallen in love with, and then dad arrives home unexpectedly. Now it’s up to the young man’s slave (Matt Walker) to figure out how to make things right and give the audience its happy ending.

A dozen or so 70’s and 80’s hits like the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House,” Alex Call and Jim Keller’s “867-5309/Jenny” and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” allow the Troubies plenty of room for Molly Booth’s suitably outrageous choreography.

The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” is reinvented to feature Beth Kennedy (hilarious) as a Mafioso banker, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” becomes a call to arms for slave-girl, Karole Foreman. Kennedy also plays a slave in the show and is equally as funny, if not more so, in that guise. Fans of Rick Batalla’s off-kilter sense of humor will love what he does here and Joey Keane finally gets to do it in drag, and bubbles, and bikinis. You’ll just have to see it.

There is no fourth wall in this production and it’s raunchy from beginning to end. Gags won’t be revealed here but I will that say that no political candidate, ethnic group, or pop culture trend goes unscathed. Some of the jokes fall flat but when they do it’s usually funnier than when they land. Troubie regulars will find that latecomers still get the song, even at the Getty Villa, and Walker has his trusty yellow flag ready to call foul on tongue-tied actors, which to delight of the opening night audience happened more than once. It’s a true ensemble effort from beginning to low blow end.

Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo raises stories-high fabric panels behind the troupe’s travelling wagon centerpiece that acts as a beautiful canvas for JM Montecalvo’s colorful and tile-patterned lighting effects. Musical director Eric Heinly’s 4-piece band seems less comfortable than usual with its incidental music but makes up for it during full-fledged production numbers.

This comedy outing may not be for everybody but it is still bright and bold and packed with laughs that add an entirely new color – definitely blue – to the palette that is Troubie-land. 

L-R: Misty Cotton, Suzanne Jolie Narbonne, Joey Keane,
Leah Sprecher, and Karole Foreman

September 9 – October 1, 2016 (8pm)
Getty Villa, co-produced by Troubadour Theater Company 
The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater
17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission
Not recommended for anyone under 12

L-R: Michael Faulkner and Matt Walker

L-R: Michael Faulkner, Rick Batalla, Leah Sprecher, Matt Walker, and Nicholas Cutro 

Beth Kennedy (center) with (L-R) Leah Sprecher, Misty Cotton,
Karole Foreman, Michael Faulkner, Matt Walker, Rick Batalla,
 Suzanne Jolie Narbonne, Nicholas Cutro, and Joey Keane

Matt Walker

Misty Cotton, Joey Keane, Nicholas Cutro, Matthew Patrick
Davis, and Leah Sprecher

The company of Haunted House Party

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