Los Angeles Theater Review: TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on April 15, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


Well, there certainly is nothing wrong with good advice. And there’s plenty of that in the structurally unconventional Tiny Beautiful Things, Nia Vardalos’s stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s epistolary best-selling book which, in the incarnation at Pasadena Playhouse starring Vardalos herself, feels like a warm little hug when it could have been gripping and cathartic.

In 2010, the real-life Strayed (who is also the central character here) was approached by colleague Steve Almond with a non-paying writing opportunity. He asked her to take over the Dear Sugar advice column on the literary site The Rumpus. She initially thought to pass, but despite no experience that should lead her to this task, an inner voice told to her to do it.

Immediately, readers noted the tonal shift (Almond calls it “radical empathy”) and figured out that there was a new Sugar in town. What separated her from the likes of most Dear Abby-style columnists was her utter elimination of personal borders in answering their questions; other than her identity, “Sugar” would reveal very intimate stories from her own life — abuse, stealing, drug use — as she strove to connect with the letter writers. The column developed a loyal following, leading two years later to a published book of the best letters.

Vardalos, creator of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, fell in love with the book, and conceived the stage version with Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail. After a successful run at NY’s Public Theater, Tiny Beautiful Things is poised to be around for years in regional productions, some of which, as at Pasadena, will star Vardalos.

With nothing more than four actors reciting letters to and from Sugar as she cleans her home, director Sherri Eden Barber recreates Kail’s original direction, which means — stultifyingly so — that the entire front of the huge stage remained in darkness when that is precisely where this material needed to happen to affect more than a few sniffles from viewers. The true star of the show is the writing, which is actually potent, thoughtful, elegantly fashioned, and universally relevant — but without a dramatic arc and the proper theater for this most intimate show, you may want to wait until there’s a better setting for this touching non-play.

If you must see it now, know that Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris assumes the role of Sugar at matinees, though it won’t make a difference. Vardalos has a certain luminosity that I found enchanting but she’s acting for film — as is the rest of the barely audible cast, most of whom are from the original at The Public (while these thespians are great, it’s always shocking how many shows don’t recast for L.A.). While I understand that the creators are going for a sense of removal, wisely avoiding a group therapy-type interaction, the proceedings here are hampered because the cast performs as if they’re still in a 299-seat house; the 686-seat Playhouse sucks up the proceedings a bit. I simply don’t understand why The State Theater of California can’t assemble their own show from the ground up — look how successful their homegrown production of Ragtime was.

Still, we are definitely left with a wistful sense of just what a struggle it is for any of us to hold it together. And with the onslaught of media, victims, and corporations quickly turning our world into fascistic white noise, a little tough-love consolation is a much-needed tonic.

photos by Jenny Graham

Tiny Beautiful Things
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
Tues at 8; Wed-Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 5, 2019
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse

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