BWW Review: CHAMP AND HIS FOUR WOMEN CONQUER CONTEMPLATION AND ADD CONTENTMENT at Theatre Unlimited (T U Studios)
This story takes place within a few weeks' time, about an affable guy who happens to be grieving a devastating loss. "Champ," a nickname Richard's beloved wife dubbed him, is all stressed out. It has been a year since his wife has passed away, and he has settled into his lonely but nonetheless new pattern of going to the gym every day, then the Sandwich shop where he always gets the exact same order, brings it home and eats it as he talks to his dead wife.
Susie, or as he dubbed her, "Princess," who is not among the living anymore, although all her photos and belongings are laid out prominently in the living room, wanders about (we, the audience can actually see her) reacting silently to his dialogue.
Billed as a Dramedy, the play is cleverly written and produced by Art Shulman ("I Got Troubles;" " The Rabbi's Mission;" "Old Broads Can't Dunk;" God, Bring Me A Miracle;" "Boxcar & Eugenia,") and many more, and Directed quite proficiently by Stan Mazin (As Director: "Doubting Thomas;" "God, Bring Me A Miracle;"" The Prisoner of Second Ave.;" "Give 'Em Hell Harry;" "Stepping Out;" As choreographer: "Bells Are Ringing;" "Anything Goes;" "Festival;" "Chicago;" "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat;" "Pippin;" "Dames at Sea;" "Superstar," et al. Stan also appeared as a dancer/actor on the Carol Burnett show for a decade and his autobiography, "A Dancer in Depth," is available on Amazon.com and BN.com).
Anthony Backman (Currently being seen in the Lifetime movies "Nanny Cam" and "Escaping Dad," and various film and stage appearances)" plays an endearing Champ and gives an earnest and touching performance, allowing us to go with him on his journey through the stages of his grief.
There is much humor, sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt, but always perfectly placed in the script at just the right moments, and all of the actors are genuine in their portrayals. There is also contemplation, pain, and the will to survive and actually thrive that comes about.
Rebecca Westberg (last seen in Art Shulman's "The Rabbi's Mission;" "Old Broads Can't Dunk;" " God, Bring Me A Miracle;" "The Crucible;" "Pocket Money;" "The Chalk Garden") plays the departed Susie very ethereally and seemingly floats through his mind and his senses. You can really sense the love and adoration they had had with each other, Richard and Susie, as shown in the staging and the emoting of the actors.
Lea Bass, ("Old Broads Can't Dunk;" " "Gospel! Gospel! Gospel!;" "The Tap Dance Kid;" "The Wiz;" "Ain't Misbehavin';" "Chicago;" " For Colored Girls...;" "A My Name is Alice") as the nosy but nurturing neighbor, Esther, who whizzes in and out with Champ's laundry at all hours of the day and night, is one of the women that are in Champs life post-wife who helps propel the story forward, and empathizes in her own unique way with what he is going through, fiercely wanting to help him. Her many odd occupations, hobbies and interests will crack you up as she often expounds on them.
Importantly, Champ has been left an envelope from Susie, to be opened a year after her passing, with explicit instructions and statements that end up coming to pass.
After the reading of it concluded, little things begin to change.
As the third woman, Caroline Westheimer ("All My Sons;" "Broadway Bound;" "Laundry and Bourbon;" and in the upcoming film 86 Melrose Ave.") plays Cheryl, a real estate broker Champ's wife met at the gym. When she comes over to help plan selling his condo, due to his current lack of enthusiasm for life, their tête-à-tête goes well and they are enjoying each other's company until Champ just can't hold on to reality anymore and goes into his protective shell.
As soon as anyone leaves and Champ is again alone in his condo, "Princess" freely roams in and out of the room in a dreamy yet animated state, representing his imagination come to life, as he pours out his thoughts and feelings to her. A bottle of "pain pills" is a constant temptation for him, as he wrestles with his multitude of feelings.
To the rescue, comes Annie, played effervescently by Shelby Janes, who absolutely shines on stage (debuting on the stage at 9 years old in "Sound of Music" and has appeared in film and television shows, most recently in the upcoming film "Why?") and puts a whole new spin on Champ and the way he's been looking at life. She's his proverbial "ray of sunshine," the girl who has been making his sandwich every day for years, that he picks up on his way home from the gym!
There are a few twists and turns near the end and we are left feeling all's well that ends well with our Champ.
I really enjoyed the physicality the actors used in their work, giving energy and authenticity to scenes and the characters, which was a great directorial move.
In examining a topic that most all of us have to deal with in our lives, it gives a well-rounded viewpoint and perspective to death and dying, life and living, and manages to lift our spirits in the process.
Champ and his Four Women plays for the next two weekends, through November 24, 2019 at Theatre Unlimited (T.U. Studios) 10943 Camarillo St. in North Hollywood; performances Friday/Saturday @ 8PM; Sunday @ 2PM. Www.champwomen.com https://www.goldstar.com/venues/north-hollywood-ca/tu-studios
Photos courtesy of Stan Mazin.