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Contra Costa Civic Theatre Continues Its 2016-17 Season With The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Comedy YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU has been entertaining theatre goers through the decades, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman is now playing at El Cerrito’s Contra Costa Civic Theatre through Dec 4th. The Hart and Kaufman's comedy is chockful of lovable, eccentric characters who would easily fit into any modern day TV sitcom. Also still relevant is the story’s heartwarming message about family, creativity and the precious brevity of life. “It’s fascinating to me how a play that is such a product of its historic moment has so much to teach us,” says director Marilyn Langbehn. “Underlying its breezy good humor are questions we still ask ourselves today: what makes a family; how do we stay connected to each other in an increasingly uncertain and complex world, and how important are material things to our definition of happiness? There’s a reason we keep returning to the Sycamore household; their ability to thrive with love and laughter is irresistible.”

Director Marilyn Langbehn’s wonderful color blind casting makes the CCCT production a delight throughout. Anyone familiar with the play through college and high school productions will marvel at how swell this cast is. The 18 member company is sharp and consistently delivers the comic material to sold out audiences into giggles of laughter. The main conflict is fairly basic: a romance between Alice Sycamore, played by a no nonsense, commanding Kate McGrath and her employer's son, Tony Kirby, played by a boyish Randy Blair,that causes two wildly different families to collide. Alice loves her family and respects their love for the simple joys of an irresponsible life. “There’s a kind of nobility about them,” she says.

The Kirbys are emblematic of stuffy and moneyed New York society, while the artistically inclined Sycamores are all accepting and unconventional extroverts. The story is secondary to the play's true pleasure just spending quality time with the extended Sycamore family and the wacky people who get pulled into their view of life. The main family includes amateur playwriting mother, Penelope, a daffy wonderful Pamela Drummer-Williams, and her fireworks obsessed husband, Paul, played by an enthusiastic Fred Pitts, the philosophizing and sage-like Martin "Grandpa" Vanderhof play by an elegant easygoing Stephen D. Steiner. The daughter, wannabe ballet dancer, Essie well played by Kate Brennan, always in hilarious perpetual motion, and her easily distracted hobbyist husband, Ed Carmichael, an ever earnest Joseph Hirsh.

Essie who is in constant motion is hilarious as she entertains her opinionated ballet teacher, Boris Kolenkhov, played by local favorite Jason Berner with an amusing Russian accent. Paul's dedicated assistant, Mr. De Pinna, played with perfect absentminded comic timing by Tom Farris, the cook, Rheba, a capable Debra Harvey and her injured boyfriend, Donald, played by the memorable Tim Holt Jones. These friends all contrast nicely to the wealthy hauteur of Tony's parents, Anthony and Miriam Kirby played by the appropriately classic imperious and stuffy Geoffrey Colton and Miyoko Sakatani.

Also supporting characters in the cast include crazy visitors who drop by including a drunk actress the perfect lush Shay Oglesby-Smith, and a Russian grand duchess now working as a waitress the over the top animated and smart Sandi Weldon. She looks the best in Jane Yuen Corich, Lisa Danz and Sophie Hanin’s 1930’s costumes that included a grand blue hat. Costumes range from a prissy ballerina to a Roman centurion. The cast is dressed in vintage wear that is clearly as authentic and full of character as Moss Hart calls for. The IRS agent clearly crisp and puzzled Chris Harper and three G-men dressed just right played by the clever Mike Reynolds and Elias Holmquist.

Langbehn’s production design and direction matches the play's unconventional characters including an important bit when Donald played by a white actor playing a black man realizes he is black. Set designer Stewart Lyle has fashioned a cluttered home with a riot of odd paintings and nicknacks. His front room and dining room have that perfect lived in effect, and a single staircase to the upper house, and Penny's desk raised on a front door entrance puts Williams in command of the stage for her many quirky lines and shticks. I do wish Lyle had opened a window to his home design and the let sun or late night color rest behind Penny's desk.

The props of this show are a huge effort by Devon LaBelle and Holly Below to fill the eccentric home with classic family photo’s, beautiful china cabinets filled with plates and art deco, paintings, including a snake temple, old phones a printing press, xylophone and Penny’s classic Underwood typewriter. The props are impressive as well as Courtney Johnson’s lighting design also gets to shine, especially when offstage fireworks light up the set, a climatic point of explosions by sound designer Michael Kelly. Yet I would have like to see some color beaming in from the window.

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU is superb and continues CCCT’s 57th season, the Sycamores are the best way to begin your holiday. The Thanksgiving table will be set since the family is here through the turkey holiday. Its reputation as an old fashioned comedy family story of love and good humor will keep you smiling from the first line to the last kiss. Contra Costa Civic’s marvelous revival is a great reminder of why people keep returning to this three generation family romp of love and laughter.

Contra Costa Civic Theatre Presents


By Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman,

Directed by Marilyn Langbehn, Set Design by Stewart Lyle

Through: Dec. 4th

Contra Costa Civic Theatre

951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, two intermissions

Tickets: $11-$28; 510-524-9012,

Photos by Alessandra Mello.

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